Coastal Carolina’s Storm Fighter

Written By: 
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

One man’s working nexus between learning about climate and combating its impacts

PHOTO: Tom Mullikin is a professor at Coastal Carolina’s School of Coastal and Marine Systems Science, which is developing an international reputation for research in coastal modeling and climate change policy.

Tom Mullikin has been something of a “beachcomber” his entire life, and he is so with a particular affinity for South Carolina’s white sandy coastline. So when Coastal Carolina University (CCU) offered him a professorship opportunity in 2014, it was an easy decision.

“I’ve always loved South Carolina’s uniquely beautiful beaches,” says Mullikin. “And for various related and unrelated reasons I have grown to love our great university, Coastal Carolina. I find the atmosphere at Coastal to be exhilarating and one dedicated to academic excellence. And this has been the case and my personal experience from the beginning.”

Today a research professor in environmental policy at CCU, Mullikin commutes from his home in Camden, the Palmetto State’s oldest inland city, just under 110 miles from CCU’s campus in Conway. He says it’s well worth the drive he makes every week and has been making for years. At CCU, he teaches at the School of Coastal and Marine Systems Science, which is fast-developing an international reputation for research in coastal modeling and climate change policy.

“President David DeCenzo and Dean Mike Roberts have assembled a team of some of the world’s foremost leaders in Coastal and Marine Systems Science,” says Mullikin. “Dr. Rich Viso is a thoughtful leader in our school and has encouraged a positive environment to collaborate with colleagues and students.”

The Camden-to-Conway jaunt is nothing compared to the regular treks he has made to the Galapagos Islands where he has taught at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. He has also lectured at Oxford University in England and St. Petersburg State in Russia, among others.

Distance is nothing to Mullikin, who has traveled the globe, setting foot on every continent numerous times, and who is presently on track to becoming the first human to have both climbed the world’s seven great summits and recorded SCUBA dives in all five oceans.

Mullikin has already logged the dives, including certified ice dives in both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans (he is a certified SCUBA instructor). He has sailed through some of the world’s roughest straits, cut his way through seemingly impenetrable jungle and rainforests, traversed some of the most unforgivably arid stretches of desert (none of which are part of his record quest) and has climbed four of the seven great summits, including the highest mountains in Europe (Mt. Elbrus), Africa (Mt. Kilimanjaro), Australia (Mt. Kosciuszko) and South America (Mt. Aconcagua), as well as many of the world’s other highest mountains.

“This would not only be a personal accomplishment, but a great achievement for our state,” says Mullikin. “If I am fortunate enough to secure this record, my proudest moment will be planting the blue South Carolina flag on the summit of the highest mountain on Earth.”

Mullikin’s global expeditions led National Geographic to reach out to him last year in order to help lead an expedition in Alaska from Denali to Prince William Sound, and in September 2016 he was named a National Geographic “expert.”

What’s the point? For most adventurers, it’s conquering that which others would not dare. For Mullikin, there is indeed a bit of the adventure aspect to it. But his expeditions are primarily driven by his passion for knowledge. For Mullikin, it’s all about gathering information, learning and educating others—his students at CCU and elsewhere—about the global environment, protecting the world’s most fragile ecosystems, and preparing for future storms.

“I travel around the world to learn and better understand the pressures, challenges and beauty of these remote locations,” says Mullikin. “Through these expeditions I have met indigenous peoples, and I’ve come to appreciate their cultures. These experiences have given me a broader understanding of global environmental matters.”

He adds, “Climbing some of the highest mountains and diving in oceans around the world has been exciting and also mentally and emotionally relaxing. When you begin to take on the beauty of these magnificent places, everything else seems to melt away.”

When he’s not lecturing in the classroom or navigating up some gray slope, Mullikin is practicing law as a senior environmental attorney. He’s one of the founding principals of the Camden-based Mullikin Law Firm, with much of his firm’s legal work focused on issues of climate, water and land use worldwide. In his travels, he has developed sophisticated strategies on issues such as climate change, nuclear technology, environmental sustainability, disaster relief, crisis management, healthcare and unconventional energy production.

In these varying capacities and focuses, Mullikin has served as a U.S. private sector representative at the 2016 U.S.–Caribbean–Central American Energy Summit. He assisted with the response to the Prestige Oil Tanker Crisis. He assisted in drafting chemical laws for the Republic of Moldova. He reviewed and drafted recommendations for the Sierra Leone Constitution and assessed best practices for the Maldives. And he led a team of experts on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme and the American Bar Association helping to draft legislation for the Republic of Fiji aimed at protecting the Pacific island nation’s rich mineral resources.

“Tom Mullikin has a huge heart for Fiji, the Pacific Rim nations, and the world,” says Tevita Boseiwaqa, the Fijian Permanent Secretary of Lands and Mineral Resources. “[Mullikin strengthened] the foundation of Fiji’s economy so that we as a nation may thrive in the global marketplace, while protecting both the Fijian people and our rich natural resources for many years to come.”

Mullikin says, “In order to enjoy environmental protection, strategies must be economically sustainable. The environment has been politicized by both sides and to the detriment of all. Economic and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be achieved through greater education and awareness.”

The environment is changing, he says, but how much of that change is part of a naturally occurring and reoccurring cycle and how much is man-induced is not really the point.

What are the points are that “climate has changed throughout all of time,” he says. “The population has more than doubled in the last 50 years and continues to grow, and more than 80 percent of all people live within 60 miles of the coast.”

Indisputable facts, he argues, and the impacts of the latter two have been dramatically demonstrated in massive hurricane-related flooding along the South Carolina coastline since 2015.

That’s why Mullikin also makes time for—and has provided enormous financial and other resources to—the all-volunteer 1,000-person S.C. State Guard, which he commands at the two-star state rank of major general.

A former U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) officer, Mullikin has transformed the S.C. State Guard (a component part of the S.C. Military Department commanded by Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, who also oversees the S.C. National Guard and the Emergency Management Division) into what is arguably one of the finest search-and-rescue organizations in the nation.

Moreover, when Hurricane Joaquin approached South Carolina in 2015, Matthew in 2016, and Irma in 2017, Mullikin brought together all of the State Guard’s assets and prepositioned them based on the best storm-forecast tracking generated by weather-modeling experts he had reached out to at CCU.

In September 2017, Mullikin and his S.C. State Guard hosted the State Guard Association of the United States’ annual convention in Myrtle Beach, where among the VIP guests were Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) and recipient of the Medal of Honor.

“Tom Mullikin—and those like him who have climbed many of the world’s great summits—is a model of perseverance,” says Livingston.

Perseverance indeed. But to hear Mullikin tell it, it’s not about summits achieved; it’s more of a pursuit of the development of that all-important nexus between climate education and preparation for future storms.