Biography

Research Professor of Geophysics
Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics

Walter H. Munk is a 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. His 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.

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.

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.

Munk lives in La Jolla, Calif.

(March 2017)