Late Professor emeritus of geophysics in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Munk’s pioneering contributions to physical oceanography and geophysics advanced the science and understanding of ocean waves, wind-driven ocean gyres, deep-sea tides, internal waves, the rotation of the earth, ocean acoustics, and geophysical data analysis.
Career & Highlights
• 1942 – Worked with Scripps Oceanography Director, Harold Sverdrup and the Pentagon on the prediction of surf conditions in support of planned allied amphibious landings in North Africa. Together they developed a wave prediction method that was applied successfully to an allied landing in Oran, North Africa. This wave prediction become the foundation for wave forecasts now made daily worldwide.
• 1943 – Created the first wave prediction course at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and trained American military meteorologists, including those who used the method to predict conditions for World War II D-Day landings in Normandy.
• 1946 – Participated in a series experiments analyzing the currents, diffusion and water exchanges in the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, to track the spread of radioactive materials in connection with American atomic weapons tests.
• 1952 – Monitored the ocean for a potential tsunami following the detonation of a hydrogen bomb on Eniwetok Atoll.
• 1957 – Suggested drilling a hole in the ocean floor through the earth’s mantle, a bold plan, “Project Mohole”, that was tested off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 1961 and eventually led to the development of the deep sea drilling program.
• 1956 – Began the study of ocean oscillations that grew into major work on long waves and tsunamis.
• 1960 – Published “Rotation of the Earth,” with Gordon J.F. MacDonald.
Walter with Harald Sverdrup, Director of Scripps, in George Scripps Hall (1940).
Walter Munk with Roger Revelle, Willard Bascom, and Gustav Arrhenius during Project Mohole, 1961.
Harald Sverdrup, Scripps Director, with Walter on his graduation day, 1946.
Walter during early days of scuba diving, Operation Capricorn (1952–1953)
Walter and Operation Capricorn team members returning home following Ivy Mike, the H-Bomb test at Eniwetok atoll.
Walter viewing a recording system used in deep-ocean studies of internal waves at Scripps Institute with French dignitaries.
• 1963 – Conducted the “Waves Across the Pacific” experiment to study the propagation of waves from the Antarctic across the Pacific.
• 1964 – Founded the Institute of Geophysics, later renamed the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.
• 1969 – Began measuring tides in the deep sea, using highly sophisticated pressure-sensing instruments dropped to the ocean floor and retrieved via acoustic release.
• 1965:1975 – With Dave Cartwright, worked to improve tide prediction, publishing “Tidal Spectroscopy and Prediction” in 1967.
• 1979 – Published “Sound transmission through a fluctuating ocean,” with R. Dashen, K.M. Watson, and F. Zachariasen.
• 1984 – Navy Secretary John F. Lehman, Jr. named Munk one of four Secretary of the Navy research chairs in oceanography. As chair, Munk worked to reaffirm the strong interest of the Secretary of the Navy in oceanography and to recognize the leading oceanographers in the United States.
• 1991 – In the acoustic thermometry of ocean climate (ATOC) project, he conducted ocean acoustics experiments to test long-range sound signals at Heard Island, a remote location in the southern Indian Ocean. The experiments were to determine whether the sound generated could be heard around the world and if a correlation could be made to ocean warming, since sound travels faster in warmer water than cooler water. These broadcasts, which were traced thousands of miles away, become known as “the sound heard around the world.”
• 1995 – Along with Peter Worcester and Carl Wunsch, published “Ocean Acoustic Tomography”, a comprehensive presentation of the underlying oceanography and mathematics that interprets certain physical properties of the ocean.
Authored more than 200 scientific research papers beginning in 1941, when he published “Internal Waves in the Gulf of California” in the Journal of Marine Research. His recent publication, “Multipurpose Acoustic Networks in the Integrated Arctic Ocean Observing System,” was published in in the
Munk was born on Oct. 19, 1917 in Vienna, Austria. At age 14 he moved to New York and later studied physics at Columbia University. He became a United States citizen in 1939. He attended the California Institute of Technology and received a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1939 and a master’s degree in geophysics in 1940. He attended Scripps Institution of Oceanography and received a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of California in 1947.
During World War II, Munk and Harald U. Sverdrup, then director of Scripps Institution, developed a system for forecasting breakers and surf on beaches, a technique of crucial importance in military amphibious landings. Munk served for a year in the United States Army Ski Battalion, for a year as an oceanographer with the University of California Division of War Research, and as a meteorologist for the Army Air Force.
During the 1946 testing of nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll in the western Pacific Ocean, he participated in analysis of the currents and diffusion in the lagoon and the water exchange with the open seas.
In 1947 Munk became an assistant professor at Scripps. In 1954 he became a professor of geophysics and also was named a member of the UC’s Institute of Geophysics, based in Los Angeles and, in 1960, he established a branch of the institute on the Scripps campus in La Jolla. The new unit was established to study the earth, its atmosphere, oceans, and interior, using methods of experimental and mathematical physics. Until 1982, he served as director of the Scripps branch and as an associate director of the university-wide institute, which was renamed the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP).
In 1963 Munk led a study of the propagation across the Pacific Ocean of swells generated near Antarctica. The program measured fluctuations with pressure sensing devices lowered to the ocean floor at six Pacific Ocean locations. Measurements were also made from Scripps’ Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP). He operated the recording station on American Samoa during the three-month project.
In 1969 he began measuring tides in the deep sea, using highly sophisticated pressure-sensing instruments that were dropped to the ocean floor and retrieved by acoustic release. Munk and Frank E. Snodgrass, a Scripps engineer with whom he worked for more than two decades, received the first award for ocean science and engineering given by the Marine Technology Society.
Munk also played a lead role in developing a new method for measuring long-term changes in ocean temperature associated with global warming that was first tested in the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) project. The idea behind ATOC is to track the changes over time of the travel times of sound signals sent from underwater speakers to underwater receivers. Because sound travels faster in warmer water than cooler water, a long-term series of tests that recorded increasingly faster travel times would indicate the ocean is warming.
Professor Munk’ s philosophy in teaching and life was always “Keep IT Simple!” and “MAKE IT FUN”!
Judith and Walter Munk on the deck of the newly completed IGPP building at Scripps (1964).
Walter receiving the Explorers Club’s highest award, “The Explorers Club Medal”
HM King Carl XVI Gustaf presents the Crafoord Prize to Walter in May, 2010.
Photo by Markus Marcetic, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Walter receives the Roger Revelle medal from Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.
Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications
Emperor Akihito and Empress Kojun welcomes Judith and Walter on the occasion of the Kyoto Prize (1999).
Alfredo Giron, Ph.D. was the first recipient of the Walter Munk Scholar Award presented by the Marine Technology Society and the Walter Munk Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans (2019).
Munk was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1956 and to the Royal Society of London in 1976. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow three times.
In 1965 he received the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America and in 1966 received the Sverdrup Gold Medal of the American Meteorological Society. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1968.
In 1976, he received the first Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Navy. In 1977 he received the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1978 he was honored with the Captain Robert Dexter Conrad Award from the U.S. Navy.
In 1983 Munk was honored with the President’s National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in scientific research, “for his unique contributions to the sciences of the geophysics and physical oceanography which have led to a better understanding of the earth’s rotation, the complexities of ocean waves, tidal processes and acoustic propagation.”
In 1989 Munk was honored with the William Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union. In 1993 he received the Vetlesen Prize from Columbia University and the first Walter Munk Award for Distinguished Research in Oceanography Related to Sound and the Sea granted by the United States Navy and The Oceanography Society.
In 1999 Munk was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences for his fundamental contributions to the field of oceanography, the first time the prize was awarded to an oceanographer. In 2001, he was the inaugural recipient of the Prince Albert I Medal in the physical sciences of the oceans, which Prince Rainier of Monaco created in cooperation with the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans.
Munk was honored with the 2010 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his pioneering and fundamental contributions to our understanding of ocean circulation, tides and waves, and their role in the Earth’s dynamics.
Munk is a member or fellow of more than a dozen professional societies. He has served on many university, national, and international committees. Since 1968 he has been a member of JASON, a prestigious panel of military advisors. He has written more than 200 scientific papers.
In 2018, Munk was awarded the French Legion of Honor in Paris, France, with the rank of chevalier (knight) for his contributions to oceanography.
In July, 2019, in honor of Walter Munk’s legacy, the Marine Technology Society and the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans established the Walter Munk Scholar Award for students. The inaugural award was presented to Alfredo Giron at the OCEANS Conference in Marseille. Giron received his Ph.D. in 2019 from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and serves as a Scientific Advisor for the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans.