Walter Munk

A seafaring scientist that pioneered wartime wave forecasting, tide prediction, ocean sound transmission, ocean circulation, deep-sea tides and much more.

Walter Munk, scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, has been called the world’s greatest living oceanographer.

Born in Austria on October 19, 1917, Walter turns 100 years old and this year, and the university celebrates Walter’s lifetime of achievements and the spirit that he embodies: the resolve to perform daring science, the foresight to educate future generations of scientists, and the sense of service that makes science an agent of societal advancement.

Walter’s career in science tracks with the history of America itself over the past eight decades, and his work has benefited society as a whole by transforming our basic understanding of the seas. His early work forecasting wave patterns gave Allied forces a tactical advantage during World War II. His expertise in ocean physics and acoustics gave the U.S. military the edge in submarine warfare through the Cold War.  As an administrator, he has guided the transformation of the San Diego region, most prominently through his role in bringing UC San Diego into existence more than 50 years ago.

In the mold of history’s greatest scientists, Walter has not just contributed research but has transformed how we understand nature. Now his eighth decade at Scripps Oceanography, he keeps alive the dialogue that invites new generations of scientists to join in telling the story of our planet so that all may benefit from the knowledge.

Career and Research Highlights

  • In 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. They developed a wave prediction method that was applied successfully to an allied landing in Oran, North Africa. This wave prediction method would become the foundation for wave forecasts now made daily worldwide.
  • In 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.
  • In 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.
  • In 1952, monitored the ocean for a potential tsunami following the detonation of a hydrogen bomb on Eniwetok Atoll.
  • Suggested drilling a hole in the ocean floor through the earth’s mantle in 1957, a bold plan that was tested off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 1961 and eventually led to the development of the Deep Sea Drilling Program.
  • In 1956, began the study of ocean oscillations that grew into major work on long waves and tsunamis.
  • In 1960, published “Rotation of the Earth,” with G. J. F. MacDonald.
  • Founded the Institute of Geophysics, dedicated in 1964, and later renamed the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.
  • In 1963, conducted the Waves across the Pacific Experiment to study the propagation of waves from the Antarctic across the Pacific.
  • In 1969, began measuring tides in the deep sea, using highly sophisticated pressure-sensing instruments dropped to the ocean floor and retrieved via acoustic release.
  • From 1965-1975, with Dave Cartwright, worked to improve tide prediction, publishing “Tidal spectroscopy and prediction” in 1967.
  • In 1979, published “Sound Transmission through a Fluctuating Ocean,” with R. Dashen, KM Watson, and F. Zachariasen.
  • In 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.
  • In 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.”
  • In 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.
  • Has 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 most recent publication, 2015’s “Multipurpose Acoustic Networks in the Integrated Arctic Ocean Observing System,” was published in in the journal Arctic.

Education, Awards and Recognition

  • BS and MS in physics from Caltech, PhD in Geophysics from UCLA, and oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Appointed to Scripps Institution of Oceanography faculty in 1947
  • Served 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 Corps.
  • Named a Guggenheim Fellow three times in 1948, 1953, and 1962
  • Received Arthur L. Day Medal from the American Geological Society in 1965
  • Named California Scientist of the Year by the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1969.
  • Awarded Agassiz Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1976
  • Received Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union in 1976
  • Named a Foreign Fellow by The Royal Society of London in 1976
  • Awarded the Captain Robert Dexter Conrad Award, from the Office of Naval Research, Department of the Navy in 1978
  • Awarded the National Medal of Science in 1983
  • Appointed Secretary of the Navy Chair in Oceanography in 1985
  • Mobula Munkia, or Munk’s devil ray, named in honor of Munk in 1987
  • Awarded William Bowie Medal from the American Geophysical Union in 1989
  • Inaugural recipient of the Walter Munk Award in 1993, given “in recognition of distinguished research in oceanography related to the sound and the sea,” awarded by the Oceanography Society, Office of Naval Research and U.S. Department of Defense Naval Oceanographic Office
  • Given Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences from the Inamori Foundation in Japan in 1999, the first time the prize was awarded to an oceanographer
  • Received Albert A. Michelson Award from the Navy League of the U.S. in 2001, which recognizes scientists whose research has significantly improved the nation’s maritime forces or the U.S. industrial technology base.
  • Inaugural recipient of the Prince Albert I Medal in the physical sciences of the oceans in 2001, created by Prince Rainier of Monaco
  • Awarded Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2010
  • Received Explorers’ Club Medal in 2014
  • Named Revelle College Faculty Fellow in 2016

More about Walter

Walter Munk’s Scripps Oceanography Research Profile

Walter H. Munk: Seventy-Five Years of Exploring the Seas (PDF)
Robert C. Spindel & Peter F. Worcester
Acoustics Today | Spring 2016 | volume 12, issue 1

Walter Heinrich Munk Biography (PDF)
Deborah Day
Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives
August 2005

“Affairs of the Sea” (PDF)
Walter Munk