James Carlton on the Relationship Between Tsunamis and Climate Change

Tom VanWinkle calls Dr. Jim Carlton, the director of Williams-Mystic, the “world’s most renowned marine ecologist.”

Dr. Carlton certainly knows a lot about tropical storms and climate change. Specifically, his Log Lunch talk was about the greatest Japanese earthquake, which occurred on March 11, 2011, in which 1,000 ocean vessels were lost.

Carlton showed a rapt audience photo after photo of ships on land, crushing buildings and wreaking havoc on coastlines.

The tsunami caused various debris to travel across the Pacific basin and wash up on the west coast of the US and South America, ranging from ships to soccer balls. Even a few Japanese fish, in skiffs that somehow managed to stay upright through the miles of soaring waves, made it to Oregon.

Notably, an entire dock washed up on the shores of Oregon some time after the tsunami. This was remarkable for more than the sheer enormity of the object, but also because it brought with it various kinds of invasive species. The dock was scraped, cleaned, and burned in an attempt to rid it of the harmful nonnatives; however, there is only so much human effort that can be taken to mitigate the impacts.

Climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of tropical storms, Carlton reminds us, and will continue to worsen as time goes on. So, we need to reduce use of plastics and improve waste management programs in order to decrease the likelihood of species migrating to other places and causing further issues.


—Jane Tekin, ’19