Biography

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

Walter H. Munk is a professor 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 research includes physical oceanography and geophysics leading to the understanding of ocean currents and circulation, tides, wave propagation in solid and fluid bodies, and the rotation of the Earth. He pioneered the use of high-speed computers for analyzing geophysical data.

Munk was born in Vienna, Austria. At age 14 he moved to New York and later studied physics at Columbia University. He attended the California Institute of Technology and received a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in geophysics. He attended Scripps Institution of Oceanography and received a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of California.

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 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.

During the testing of nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll in the southern Pacific Ocean, he participated in analysis of the currents and diffusion in the lagoon and the water exchange with the open seas.

Munk became an assistant professor at Scripps. He then became a professor of geophysics and also was named a member of the UC’s Institute of Geophysics, based in Los Angeles and 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. 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).

Munk led a study of attenuation in ocean swells generated in the Southern Oceans. The program measured fluctuations with pressure sensing devices lowered to the ocean floor. Measurements also were made at six Pacific Ocean locations and from Scripps’ Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP). He operated the recording station on American Samoa during the three-month project.

He began measuring tides in the deep sea, using highly sophisticated pressure-sensing instruments he developed that were dropped to the ocean floor and retrieved by acoustic release. With co-developer Frank E. Snodgrass, Munk 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 tracking long-term changes in climate associated with global warming as part of the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) project. The idea behind ATOC is to send sound signals from underwater speakers and track how long it takes them to reach receivers moored to the floor of the Pacific thousands of miles away. 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 and to the Royal Society of London. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow three times.

He received the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America and received the Sverdrup Gold Medal of the American Meteorological Society and the Alumni Distinguished Service Award from the California Institute of Technology. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London and was named California Scientist of the Year by the state-operated California Museum of Science and Industry.

He received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Bergen, Norway and he received the first Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Navy. He received the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and a Professional Achievement Award from the UCLA Alumni Association. He was honored with the Captain Robert Dexter Conrad Award from the U.S. Navy. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship.

Munk was honored with the 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. He 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. The Navy League of the U.S. honored him with the Albert A. Michelson Award, which recognizes scientists whose research has significantly improved the nation’s maritime forces or the U.S. industrial technology base. 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 received the Reischauer International Education Award from the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana.

Munk was named honorary fellow of the Acoustical Society of America “for the invention of acoustic tomography.” He is a member or fellow of more than a dozen other professional societies. He has served on many university, national, and international committees. He has been a member of JASON, a prestigious panel of military advisors. He has written more than 200 scientific papers.

Last updated January 2010