100 Years of Walter Munk

Photo: Markus Marcetic, ©The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Curiosity and discovery go hand in hand, especially when it comes to science. Whether in the lab or deep in the field, it takes a profound sense of wonder and relentless spirit of adventure to methodically seek answers to our vast and mysterious world.

At nearly 100 years old, Walter Munk, PhD ’47 has completely embraced this spirit of adventure. He has spent eight decades at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, first as one of its original graduate students, then a highly distinguished researcher and professor.

Munk is a living legend whose big, bold ideas have advanced ocean sciences immeasurably.

Munk at the Alexa Bank Atoll during the Capricorn Expedition in 1952—the first time Scripps researchers used scuba diving to explore the Pacific.

And along the way, he’s braved treacherous seas, radioactive rain and the ever-present threat of epic failure, all in the name of scientific exploration. Even now, as he’s about to hit the century mark, his curiosity isn’t even close to being satisfied.

Ironically, “the world’s greatest living oceanographer” grew up nowhere near the ocean. Born into a banking family in landlocked Austria, Munk found his first calling in the country’s steep, snow-covered mountains where he spent more time skiing than studying. Dismayed by her 15-year-old son’s outdoor activities, Munk’s mother sent him packing to a prep school in upstate New York. Afterwards he began a preordained career in finance, but he stuck it out for just two years until he drove cross-country to California, where he charmed and tested his way into Caltech to study geophysics.

The next chapter of Munk’s life began as so many young men’s do: by following a pretty girl. She was headed to La Jolla to stay with her grandparents for the summer. Although their romance didn’t last, Munk’s love affair with the quiet seaside community was just beginning. In the summer of 1939, Munk approached Scripps Oceanography director Harald Sverdrup, the renowned Norwegian physical oceanographer and Arctic explorer, for a job. Sverdrup agreed and Munk became a student assistant, making $50 a month and plucking abalone off the old Scripps pier for food.

Today Munk lives on a bluff in La Jolla not far from where that pier stood. He meets me in his home office, with floor-to-ceiling windows framing a verdant canyon and a glittering stripe of deep blue that fades to the horizon. From his desk, Munk enjoys an unspoiled view of what he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand.

He moves more slowly than he did as a strapping young oceanographer, but he’s still spry, working daily, giving regular talks and traveling abroad. Today Munk wants to sit outside, and he shuffles out to a sun-dappled patio, settling at a table next to a garden dotted with succulents and sculptures made by his late wife, Judith, an artist and architect who played a tremendous role in his life story and career success until her passing in 2006. He points out Judith’s nearby sculpture of UC San Diego founder Roger Revelle as something very special to him. Part of her inscription reads: This task was done with more enthusiasm than knowledge.

“More enthusiasm than knowledge,” Munk repeats, a lilting trace of his Austrian accent still audible. “That’s been the key of my career—to get excited before I understand it.”

Walter and Judith Munk in October 1962. After Judith’s passing in 2006, Munk married Mary Coakley in 2011.

Those four simple words perfectly sum up his sense of adventure when it comes to his groundbreaking scientific research, a body of work that is wide-ranging and tremendously practical. His decades of discoveries have shaped what humanity knows about the nature of waves, currents, tides, global ocean circulation and deep-sea drilling. And the protocols for fieldwork he helped define decades ago are still in regular use today.

Down by the pier, surfers bob in the water, waiting in the lineup. Some have never heard of the man, Walter Munk, while others revere him. Munk’s earliest research focused on ocean waves: where they come from, how they move. That work led to the ability to predict swells, including direction, duration, expected height and speed. In other words, the local surf forecast.  

However, Munk’s discoveries would serve a far more serious and historic purpose. During WWII, after a stint in the U.S. Army Ski Battalion, he was dispatched to South Carolina to explore the issue of detecting German submarines.

Tritons share their memories of Walter Munk.

Yet Munk noticed something else as he stood on the shore watching troops training on amphibious landing vehicles: they were being battered by waves as they approached the beach. Munk, then an unknown doctoral student, called his well-respected mentor, Sverdrup, who flew out immediately. With the Navy gearing up for an on-shore invasion of Northwest Africa, Munk and Sverdrup were charged with finding a method to predict waves.

Munk pored over three years’ worth of archived weather maps from Pan Am Airways, searching for patterns and determining how waves were affected by storms both near and far. The Sverdrup/Munk theory proved so accurate that the men were authorized to establish a school at Scripps for meteorological officers from both the Army and the Navy, graduating 100 students as part of the war effort. Some of those former students would play a crucial role in the D-Day landings in Normandy, which helped usher in the end of the war.

“For me, that was the beginning of a long collaboration with the Navy,” says Munk, who even today remains the Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Oceanography Chair at Scripps and still holds a top security clearance. “I’ve flunked retirement,” he says with a chuckle. “I like to work.”

Munk’s work earned him a PhD in 1947, and soon he was off on his next adventure. In the early ’50s, he consulted for the Navy again, this time on a series of nuclear tests in the American Pacific. Munk was there for the granddaddy of all blasts, which took place in 1952 at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The military’s new hydrogen bomb was estimated to be 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic weapons that had ended the war. Munk worried that the H-Bomb would trigger underwater landslides, leading to a tsunami, flooding low-lying areas of nearby islands and potentially killing thousands.

“We invented a warning test,” explains Munk. He and his team from Scripps set up a buoy system with lines that ran from the seafloor to surface platforms. Pressure on the buoy lines would indicate a tsunami. Munk watched the test explosion floating on a 5’x5’ raft about five miles away from the blast. No tsunami followed, but the principles of his warning system are still in use today.

“I’m probably the person who’s been closest to an H-bomb and is still alive,” recalls Munk, who was soaked by radioactive rain. “Back on the ship, a safety officer tested us. The Geiger counter was off the charts. People still ask me if I was irradiated. I say no, I haven’t been affected. Been affected. Been affected. Been affected.” Munk chuckles at his well-polished joke, as does everyone on the patio, rapt by his story.

(L to R) Roger Revelle, Walter Munk and Gustaf Arrhenius from Scripps Institution of Oceanography aboard the oil drillship, CUSS I, during Project Mohole in 1961.
Photos: UC San Diego Library Collection

Soon after, on one of many expeditions with Revelle in the deep Pacific, Munk was part of the first oceanographic team to scuba dive in the field, part of a multifaceted approach to research.

 Asked whether his love of scientific adventure factored heavily into his career choices, he smiles broadly. “I think so. Yes, I think so.” In 1953, Munk married Judith Horton, who would travel with him to the most remote corners of the world. She became a vital member of UC San Diego community at Scripps, where she lent her considerable talents and made contributions to architecture, campus planning and the renovation of historic buildings.

The couple also hosted frequent social gatherings during which students mingled with professors, artists with academics, and where casual conversations would turn into the next great adventure.

The idea for Munk’s most groundbreaking endeavor arose in one such conversation during the late ’50s, over drinks with Revelle. “What if,” he asked, “we were to drill a hole to the mantle of the earth?” Remarkably, they were able to secure funding for Project Mohole (the name derived from the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the boundary surface between the crust and the mantle).

Before Munk, deep-sea drilling was considered impossible. Without GPS or any other way to determine position, there was no way to keep a drilling ship stationary. Munk got around this problem by developing a system using sound for triangulation. The ship sent and received sound impulses from the ocean floor, offering an exact location. This method proved highly successful.

A young Walter Munk skiing as a student at California Institute of Technology, where he started the ski team for the university.

Project Mohole intrigued the world. Even writer John Steinbeck accompanied Munk and his crew on the drilling ship to document the expedition for Life magazine. “He was wonderful,” recalls Munk. “He really worked for us, instead of being a distant reporter.”

In one sense, Project Mohole failed. Munk and his crew were forced to call it quits before boring through the Earth’s crust. But the ability to fix a drilling ship in place was a game changer.

“It was extremely important for the deep-sea drilling of oil,” says Munk. As a result, oil companies continue to invest considerably in ocean research. For scientists, Munk’s methods unlocked access to the deep-sea floor, which 50 years later continues to be a major source of geologic research.

Failure, says Munk, should not be avoided. “I’ve failed so many times,” he says. “People are so afraid of doing something that doesn’t work. We ought to encourage students to experiment and make mistakes. We ought to give degrees for experiments done very well that have failed.”

Yet for all his scientific and historic achievements (and failures), Munk’s true legacy lives in those who’ve received his generous mentorship and instruction. “He doesn’t have any students now, but he’s had a steady stream during his career,” says Peter Worcester, PhD ’77, research oceanographer emeritus at Scripps and Munk’s doctoral student in the ’70s. “He gives his students great latitude and responsibility,” says Worcester. “I was a chief scientist on a cruise while I worked on my thesis. Nowadays, that’s unimaginable.”

Italian marine biologist Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, PhD ’85, who considers Munk a second father, paid tribute to his friend and mentor in an exceptional way. In 1987, when he discovered a rare devil ray, a captivating creature that leaps through the air in acrobatic displays, he named it Mobula munkiana, or Munk’s devil ray.  The magnificent animals, which glide through the water so elegantly, face grave threats ranging from unsustainable fisheries to climate change.

Munk believes climate change is the most important issue we face today by far. “The challenge is enormous,” says Munk, who has seen the evidence mount for decades. “There really are no good solutions yet. It’s going to take people who are interested and qualified. They’ll have a very exciting role.”

In 2015, Munk went to the Vatican for a four-day workshop on climate change, which was attended by Pope Francis. “My work with Walter [has dealt] with the interface between science and religion,” says Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a distinguished professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps and one of the organizers of the Vatican meeting. Ramanathan and Munk have also discussed climate change with the Dalai Lama.

“Many people assume Walter has stepped back significantly from daily interactions with oceanography,” says Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Nothing could be further from reality. Walter is working on multiple publications, and he attends seminars and events almost every day. Those of us at Scripps are privileged to see how extensively Walter still contributes to the oceanographic community.”

Back at his home, Munk reflects on his career with modesty—his stories never fail to mention those who were integral to his success. “I’ve worked with so many good people,” he says. “I’ve been lucky that things I started, which used to have one or two people worrying about it, now have a large group of people working on them.”

As we wrap up our interview, Munk heads back to his home office and sits at his desk, eager to get back to work. “Every time you learn something about the world, it’s exciting,” he says. And, if Munk has proven anything, it’s that excitement and enthusiasm can lead to vast knowledge.