America’s Vanishing Coastline: Climate Adaptation and Decision-Making in Southern Louisiana

When Spring ’17 student Natalie DiNenno stumbled across an article about climate refugees in Alaska, she wondered if she had found her marine policy research topic. Studying sociology at Williams had taught Natalie to “think about research in terms of people and places,” and she hoped to carry this approach over to her policy research project at Williams-Mystic.

Guided by marine policy professor Katy Robinson Hall (S’84), Natalie decided to explore climate adaptation not in Alaska but in southern Louisiana — and, in particular, in many of the communities we visit during our Louisiana Field Seminar.

“I never would have thought about this in terms of policy,” Natalie notes a year later. But as she explored the topic further, she “realized that people can’t just decide,” in isolation, whether to “restore the coast or retreat.” They require “government organization, legislation, and funding.”

Just over a year after Natalie’s Williams-Mystic semester began, Natalie and Katy presented their research at a Log Lunch, a weekly gathering hosted by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies and featuring speakers on a range of environmental topics.

In advance of their talk, Natalie reflected on her research, on how her experiences on the Louisiana Field Seminar complicated it, and on the lessons it has to offer other communities imperiled by rising seas. Read on to hear her thoughts. 

Describe the basics of your project: its origins, your research question(s), and the takeaways so far.

When I was originally looking into project ideas, I found an article about Alaskan climate refugees. I thought that might be interesting to explore, but I didn’t know how it intersected with marine policy. I’m a sociology major, so I tend to think about research in terms of places and peoples. [Marine Policy Professor] Katy [Robinson Hall] suggested that I look into land loss into Louisiana, and the decision that the people living there have to make: restore the coast, or retreat? I never would have thought about this in terms of policy, but as I did further research I realized that people can’t just decide to do either of these things by themselves without government organization, legislation, and funding. Another key takeaway: land loss is fast, and governments are slow. This is a dangerous combination.

Approaching the project, I asked questions including: Why restore the coast? Can it be done? What work has to be done in order for people to conduct organized resettlements? Who advocates for restoration, and who advocates for retreat? Where does funding come from, and what happens if there is no funding?

My conclusion, in brief, is that while Louisiana should pursue restoration where possible, due to the rapid loss of land, the government should prioritize resettlement and dedicate funding to this effort. Land loss happens more rapidly than restoration. It is better to save communities by moving them than to focus purely on restoration (particularly in places that primarily benefit energy and oil interests), because if they are not saved now, they will simply break up and wash away as residents move individually.

Describe a moment of the Louisiana Field Seminar that stands out to you.

I distinctly remember meeting Chief Shirell [Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou-Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Indians] and being surprised by how young, energetic, and passionate she was. The way she spoke about her tribe and what they will lose if nothing is done was heartbreaking, but she also had an incredible amount of joy and hope despite how desperate their situation is.

How did your experiences in Louisiana shape your research — either the way you carried it out or the questions you asked in the first place?

Katy told me before we left that I would return from the field seminar even more confused and conflicted than I already was, and she was right. Without the field seminar, my analysis of the issue would have been much colder and less personal, with more emphasis on advocating for retreat. But seeing the people who live there, and how connected they are to their land, made me reconsider how difficult it really is to just pick up and move.

I think that if I had written the same paper for a class at Williams, and not at Williams-Mystic, I would have lacked an understanding of the coastal way of life and just how important the ocean is to people’s lives. Williams-Mystic allowed me to see the world in a way that was completely different than learning that takes place solely in a classroom.

What do you wish more people understood about climate adaptation in coastal Louisiana and regions like it?

For these people, climate change is happening now. That’s true for a lot of places — in the form of extreme weather conditions, storms, and changing temperatures, but the actual physical loss of land is more concrete. There are people living in these regions who can point to a body of water and say “there used to be a beach/house/restaurant there.” It doesn’t even matter if there aren’t any more storms; the land will continue to sink and the sea will continue to rise. When people think about climate change, I don’t think they often picture land disappearing. But it is.

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On January 11 and 18, Join Us for Cajun Dancing

Fall 2017 students follow along as they learn Cajun dancing at a dance hall in Houma, La.

Fall 2017 students learn Cajun dancing during their Louisiana Field Seminar.

This January, Williams-Mystic is delighted to host a Williams College Winter Study course entitled “The Changing Landscape and Musical Geography of the Mississippi River Delta” — and inspired by our very own Louisiana Field Seminar. As part of the course, there are two free, live Cajun music and dance events we very much hope you’ll come out for.

When: 7 pm on Thursday, January 11 and Thursday, January 18

Where: Frohsinn Hall, 54 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic, CT, 06355. (Across from Mystic Seaport’s South Gate; you can park in Mystic Seaport’s South Parking Lot.)

These events are FREE and open to the public.

The band for the first dance (held January 11) will be Jesse Lége and Bayou Brew, one of the most respected, traditional Cajun bands in Louisiana. This is an extraordinary opportunity to hear — and dance to! — some of the best Cajun music being played now.

The band for the second dance (held January 18) will be Marc Bernier and the Mystic Playboys, a ten-piece, all-star band featuring some of the best players in southeastern New England and playing New Orleans R&B, Zydeco, Western Swing, Honky Tonk, and Rockabilly. Laissez les bon temps roulet! (Let the good times roll!)

All are welcome to come dance or listen — there will be a short lesson at the beginning for inexperienced dancers. We hope to see you there!

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How One Alumna’s South Pole Journey Earned Williams-Mystic $25,000

Jamie Hensel (S'03) stands holding the Williams-Mystic burgee at the ceremonial South Pole.

Jaime Hensel (S’03) arrives at the ceremonial South Pole, Williams-Mystic burgee in hand.

During Alumni Reunion Weekend 2017, Alexander “Sasha” Bulazel (S’85) posed a challenge to his fellow Williams-Mystic alumni: Take a picture with the Williams-Mystic burgee at one of our planet’s extremes,* and Bulazel would donate $25,000 to Williams-Mystic.

Not two months later, Jaime Hensel (S’03), arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station with the Williams-Mystic burgee in hand.

For Hensel, a nurse practitioner who is half of South Pole Station’s medical team this austral summer, this moment had been years in the making.

It began during her Williams-Mystic semester, when her experience offshore — she spent her twentieth birthday sleeping on the deck of the Corwith Cramer — inspired her to pursue tall ship sailing after graduation.

Throughout her five years in the tall ship world, Hensel met shipmates who’d been to Antarctica. As on the Cramer, an idea took root.

That idea persisted, even as Hensel found herself in other places she never expected to.

Aboard the schooner Adventuress, for instance, Hensel read a book by the vessel’s captain about his experiences walking the Camino de Santiago.

As she puts it: “Like many things in my life, [the idea] took hold and I thought, ‘I should do this one day.’”

Not long after, she found herself on the Camino. It was there her life took another turn, when a new friend she met there helped her decide to pursue nursing.

Throughout her years at the Yale School of Nursing, Hensel continued to consider going to the South Pole. She applied three times after graduating in 2013 before, in the spring of 2016, she was granted an interview.

“They said, ‘How about the summer season of 2017/18?’ I … wasn’t totally certain [until a few months later] I had been hired.”


Hensel reached the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on November 1, 2017. The station, her home until February, sits at 9,306 feet above sea level, perched atop a 9,000-foot thick ice sheet that drifts as many as 33 feet each year.

For Hensel, this world of extremes felt familiar.

“It’s an awful lot like living on a boat here,” she explains over the phone five weeks after her arrival at the South Pole. Resources are scarce. The station’s inhabitants, numbering up to 150 most austral summers and 40 most winters, relate to each other as shipmates.

Like sailors, they communicate using their own argot. Their uniform comprises government-issued red overcoats (“big red”) and white boots (“bunny boots”). Inhabitants even refer to their kitchen as a galley.

They work hard too. Everyone takes turns cleaning shared spaces. Hensel and the station’s doctor spend sixty hours a week in the clinic and alternate being on call during off hours.

“We run a hospital, basically,” Hensel reflects. “We’re our own pharmacists. We’re our own lab … We want to take care of [people] because they’re our community.”

The entire station is that way: a self-contained unit. All its supplies have to be flown or hauled in over three summer months. Though the station is moored atop more than a mile of ice, residents are limited to two two-minute showers each week because even extracting water demands scarce fuel. Inhabitants manufacture their own fun, too; Hensel’s learning to unicycle, cross-country ski, and even drive snowmobiles.

Who thrives here? For Hensel, “the short answer is a sailor: Someone who is used to living in close quarters. You also have to be willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort. To quote Glenn, ‘if you’re cold, you’re dumb.’ ” Since limited satellite coverage means you can only access the internet three hours most days, you also have to be “willing to connect with human beings around you.”


When Hensel sailed aboard the schooner Adventuress, she learned to view the “boat as a metaphor for a small planet”: a world of finite resources, resources that must be managed by the people reliant on them.

For Hensel, this “small dot in the middle of a large, frozen sea” felt like home for precisely this reason.

“[South Pole Station] is definitely station as metaphor for small planet,” she reflects. “It’s also one of those crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experiences… I love it here.”


* These extremes include: the North and South Poles; the Marianas Trench and/or another significant point on the ocean floor; or, the top of one of the world’s tallest mountains (e.g., Everest or K2). Bulazel has pledged up to $100,000; i.e., he will donate $25,000 for each of the first four alumni (including Hensel) who takes a picture with our burgee at one of these places. Contact us at [email protected] if you are going somewhere that might qualify!

Notes and Further Reading

We’re profoundly grateful to Alex Bulazel for his generosity and to Jaime Hensel for her adventurous spirit (and for taking the time to talk about her experiences during a rare moment of satellite coverage).

If you want to hear more about Hensel’s experience — or simply learn more about life at the South Pole — I highly recommend her blog: If you want to embark on a South Pole journey of your own, Hensel says she would be happy to hear from you; you can reach her at [email protected].

Some additional resources I drew on in writing this piece include:


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From C to Shining Sea: Complex Dynamics from Combinatorics to Coastlines

If there’s one thing Williams-Mystic students learn first, it’s that you can’t study a topic as vast as our world’s oceans and coasts from the vantage point of a single discipline. From day one, Williams-Mystic prompts students to draw connections among topics as (seemingly) far afield as literature, policy, science, and history.

In his presentation Friday as part of Williams-Mystic’s Biannual Lecture Series, Williams College professor Steven J. Miller brought another perspective to bear: mathematics, specifically complex dynamics.

Complex dynamics is the study of iterations of maps. From very simple, basic rules, incredibly complex and highly structured behavior emerges, frequently surfacing in wildly different settings at many different scales. Miller’s talk introduced some of the general theory in the complex plane C and explored these connections, starting with binomial coefficients and progressing to the fractal dimension of coastlines and chaos in weather prediction.

The goal: To emphasize how the same ideas and techniques can be fruitfully applied again and again. Mathematical perspectives on complexity might seem abstract. But, Miller stressed, these perspectives can yield unique insights into real-world problems, from how to accurately measure a single island’s coastline to how to predict changing weather patterns the world over.

You can watch Miller’s talk on YouTube, and follow along on the slides posted online.

Steven Miller earned his BS in mathematics and physics from Yale and his PhD in mathematics from Princeton. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Brown, Mount Holyoke, NYU, Ohio State, Princeton, Smith, and Williams, and been supported by multiple NSF grants for both research and expository writing. He is the author of over 100 papers in accounting, computer science, economics, geology, marketing, mathematics, physics, sabermetrics, and statistics, as well as five books. For several years he has recorded all his classes and many talks, which are freely available at .

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Fall 2017 Student Finds Community, Competes in Miss Connecticut USA Pageant

By Taylor Harris, Williams Mystic F’17

At Williams-Mystic, our students develop close-knit communities in the classroom, on the road, and in our student houses. They also become members of the local community.

For Fall ’17 student Taylor Harris, this means continuing her passion for competing in pageants.

Taylor came to Williams-Mystic as a junior English major from Howard University. She has been competing in pageants on and off since she was six years old and last year she competed in Miss District of Columbia USA. Taylor is excited not only to continue her passion this year but also to represent Connecticut and Williams-Mystic along the way. For Taylor, this is an opportunity to give back to a community that, while new, has become her home.

A large part of any pageant journey is associated costs and entry fees. Last year, Taylor supported this cost by working and “cold-calling” on local businesses for sponsorships. This was a challenging but rewarding task in itself. She found that much of her community not only supported her but believed in her success as well. Taylor hopes that our community, although new and unfamiliar to her, will support her in the same way. As an aid on her journey, and a place to express just what this experience means to her, Taylor has set up a GoFundMe account. It is with the help of family, friends, and most of all community that her dream may become that much closer to reality.

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Long-Distance Life Rafts Transported Hundreds of Species Across the Pacific, Study Led by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Finds

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan’s coast. More than six years later, marine organisms naScience Tsunami Covertive to Japan and representing nearly 300 species are still washing up on North America’s coasts.

These are some of the findings of a major study published September 29 in the journal Science and authored by a team led by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus James T. Carlton.

Most of these organisms, the study revealed, clung to manmade materials. The implication: Plastic marine debris, already polluting the world’s oceans, could increase the number of non-native marine species that cross these oceans.

“This study of a remarkable ocean rafting event of unprecedented magnitude and duration reveals for the first time the profound role that plastic marine debris can now play in transporting entire communities of species in the world’s oceans—for far longer lengths of time than historic dispersal on natural substrates (such as wood) would have been possible,” Carlton says.

The study drew together a team from across the country. Williams-Mystic’s own James and Deborah Carlton joined with researchers from Oregon State University, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. They also relied on more than 200 volunteers to collect marine debris starting in 2012 and continuing through today. As late as this September, Jim and Debby could be found cataloguing dozens of specimens in Williams-Mystic’s Marine Science Center.

The team has won accolades not just for their study’s scope but also for its imaginative approach.

“These scientists have taken the unusual tack of looking at a natural disaster and coming to new conclusions about how our activities and structures influence species distributions in the oceans,” says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which co-funded the research.

In short, Carlton’s ground-breaking research suggests, natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami coincide with social and economic developments to radically alter marine ecosystems the world over. The upshot–that now more than ever, addressing marine environmental issues demands an interdisciplinary approach–should sound familiar to any Williams-Mystic student.


The full paper, “Tsunami-driven rafting: Transoceanic species dispersal and implications for marine biogeography,” can be found here.

See also this accompanying video, articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, and features on the websites of Williams College and Mystic Seaport.


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“Primary Research Bootcamp”: A Recent Alumna Reflects on Her Williams-Mystic Experience

by Paula Consolini, PhD, Director, Center for Learning in Action, Williams College

Shanti Hossain (F’16) explores the Port of Oakland aboard a tugboat as part of the California Field Seminar.

Shanti Hossain (Williams ’19) attended Williams-Mystic for the Fall 2016 semester, during her sophomore year. One year later, as a junior pursuing a double major in Computer Science and English, she reflects on her semester at Williams-Mystic and the impact it has had on her time at Williams.

What drew you to Williams-Mystic in the first place?

I wasn’t considering attending Williams-Mystic at all until my freshman spring, the semester before I actually attended. On the first day of the semester, there was an informational meeting with Tom Van Winkle, the Executive Director, and several alumni from the program, and I decided to pop in. I wasn’t seriously considering the program, because I didn’t think I was the ‘type’ of student to do Mystic. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to major in anything like Biology or Environmental Science, and while I appreciated the ocean and its importance, I wasn’t obsessed with it or wanting to study it for the rest of my life. But when the alumni of the program started talking, I realized that a lot of them were just like me. A lot of them didn’t have any particular reason for wanting to dive into studying the ocean, but they loved the program anyway–because, like all Williams students, we just love to learn, and Williams-Mystic really celebrates learning in all its forms.

What surprised you about the program when you got there?

The admissions directors of Williams-Mystic often said that the hardest part about recruiting for Williams-Mystic is trying to describe the program in one sentence, and I think that’s absolutely true. If you think about it just as “the Maritime Studies program” or “the program where you live on a boat,” then you’re really failing to capture so much of what the program is. You could just as easily describe it as “Interdisciplinary Studies 101,” or “Learning to Live in a Community,” or “Primary-Research Bootcamp,” or “Proof that Domestic Study Away Can be Just as Eye-Opening as Study Abroad,” and all of those descriptions would capture some crucial part of the Williams-Mystic experience.

How has Williams-Mystic changed the way you think about your studies?

I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary studies; I think most of us at Williams chose to go to a liberal arts college because we’re passionate about so many different things. Part of the Williams academic ethos is taking classes across the divisions, making connections across your classes. But it’s somewhat up to you to craft a program of study that pushes you out of your comfort zone and allows for those cross-discipline connections. Williams-Mystic basically says: what if we all stopped for a semester to focus on studying one thing, the ocean as a case study, and learning what it means to experience it from every possible perspective? The program is crafted so that you’re constantly making connections, constantly relating one subject to another. The professors plan their lessons so that it happens. Our campus is a museum, so we’re constantly surrounded by our subject material. I’ve learned how important interdisciplinary learning is to me, and now that I know what true commitment to it looks like, I’m pursuing that as much as I can for the rest of my time at Williams.

How did your classmates’ perspectives change your experience?

One of my favorite parts of the program the community-living aspect of Williams-Mystic, because it gave me the opportunity to learn so much from my classmates. Academically, we do so much throughout the semester that it’s absolutely impossible for you to excel at everything. And as a result, you’re constantly bringing out the best in one another. Maybe someone’s great in one class or another, but then someone else brings a constant supply of energy to your skills class, or is that one person who’s really, really good at entertaining everyone on long car trips, or teaching housemates to cook. Because residential life and extracurricular life and travel life are just as important as academic life, it moves the focus from competing academically to growing as people, together.

What about Williams-Mystic do you think will stick with you a decade from now?

My experiences on the field seminars–the trips across the country we took with our professors–will stay with me for a long time. It was just an incredible experience to sit as a group in one spot, maybe on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, or overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and have that one spot inspire a lecture from our history professor about a historical event that happened there, then having our English professor read and analyze a poem inspired by it, and then have our policy professor talk about the different maritime laws that impacted who used this space, and how. It showed me just how many perspectives there are around every single place and event and opinion, and it showed me how valuable–and exciting–it is to learn about as many of those perspectives as you can.


This piece was written for and originally published in the Center for Learning in Action Chronicle, a publication of Williams College’s Center for Learning in Action

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At the Center of Negotiations on National Ballast Water Regulation, a Williams-Mystic Alumna

By Katy Robinson Hall (S’84); edited by Meredith Carroll

From writing children’s books to conducting scientific research, the careers people pursue after Williams-Mystic are as varied as our more than 1,700 alumni. But if there’s one thing that unites many of these careers, it’s that alumni often find themselves uniquely equipped to advocate for the ocean at the intersection of science, policy, and politics.

Nicole Dobroski (F’96), who has found herself at the center of US Senate negotiations on national ballast water regulation, is the latest example of this shared theme.

It all started earlier this year, when the US Senate introduced the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) as part of the larger U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act. VIDA would consolidate federal regulation of ballast water and discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel with the USCG. The law would also preempt state regulation of those discharges.

Dobroski, who serves as the Assistant Chief of the Marine Environmental Protection Division of the California State Lands Commission, manages California’s marine invasive species program. Ever since VIDA was introduced, she’s been hard at work forging a consensus on amendments to the legislation. In true Williams-Mystic fashion, she’s working with a wide range of stakeholders, from the California Governor’s Office and US Senate Congressional staff to scientists at state agencies to shipping agency representatives. Her end goal: maintain state protection over unique state waters–and the invaluable ecosystems they contain–while shipping industry’s desire to reduce conflicting federal and state regulatory requirements.

The process is far from over; on Thursday, Dobroski called marine policy professor Katy Robinson Hall (S’84) in the midst of negotiating with the Senate over certain aspects of the Jones Act. But standing at the intersection of ecology, policy, and environmental change, Dobroski’s work attests to the enduring value of the interdisciplinary approach to the ocean that Williams-Mystic fosters.


Nicole Dobroski (F’96), also served as our Science T.A. from Spring 2001 through Spring 2005. She earned her B.A. in Biology from Pomona College and her M.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Rhode Island. She is currently the Assistant Chief of the California State Lands Commission’s Marine Environmental Protection Division.

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Announcing the Dates for Our 40th Reunion

Update: We are now accepting registrations! Please visit to register and explore the schedule–and don’t forget to check back often for updates from Labaree.

Alumni, mark your calendars! Williams-Mystic’s 40th annual alumni weekend will take place September 15-17, 2017. We’ll be mailing and emailing invitations later this summer; we’ll also make a sign-up link available at that time. In the meantime, we recommend practicing your whaleboat rowing form, brushing up on your Williams-Mystic trivia, and getting excited for our biggest reunion yet.

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Chanteys with Spring 2017!

Whether you’re forging a hook in the shipsmithing shop or climbing the rigging of the Charles W. Morgan as part of Mystic Seaport’s demonstration squad, maritime skills are an integral part of life here in Mystic. Beyond being a one-of-a-kind break from academics, maritime skills involve students in the day-to-day workings of our Mystic Seaport campus–and give them a firsthand experience of maritime traditions they can’t get anywhere else.

Enjoy this short excerpt from our Spring 2017 chantey singers, and check out the full performance here!

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