Munk, Walter Heinrich

August 21, 2012, 4:32 pm
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Walter Heinrich Munk (1917-), an American oceanographer and geophysicist who has performed pioneering work in the energetics of wind-driven ocean circulation, vertical mixing in the ocean, wave propagation, and tidal dissipation. He enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1939 and a master's in geophysics in 1940. He attended Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and received his Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of California in 1947. Munk has spent his entire professional career at the Scripps Institution.

During World War II, Munk helped develop a system for forecasting breakers and surf on beaches, a technique of crucial importance in military amphibious landings. It was widely applied in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of war, and it correctly predicted high but manageable waves for the Normandy invasion. During the 1946 testing of nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll in the southern Pacific Ocean, Munk participated in an analysis of currents and diffusion in the lagoon and the water exchange with the open seas. He pioneered research on the relationship between winds and ocean circulation, coining the now widely used term "wind-driven gyres."

Walter Munk was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1956 and to the Royal Society of London in 1976. He has been a both a Guggenheim Fellow (three times) and a Fulbright Fellow. He was also named California Scientist of the Year by the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1969. Among the many other awards and honors Munk has received are the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America in 1956, the Sverdrup Gold Medal of the American Meteorological Society in 1966, the Alumni Distinguished Service Award from the California Institute of Technology in 1966, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1968, the first Maurice Ewing Medal sponsored by the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Navy in 1976, the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977, the Captain Robert Dexter Conrad Award from the U.S. Navy in 1978, the National Medal of Science in 1985, and the William Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1989.

In the 1950s, Munk focused on the wobble of the Earth's axis during rotation. He observed irregularities in the Earth's motion caused by geophysical processes, such as the momentum exchange between ocean currents and the solid Earth and the exchange of mass between polar ice sheets and oceans. In 1963, he led a study that showed that waves generated by winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere traveled thousands of miles and spread throughout the world's oceans. To trace the path and the decay of wave packets as they propagated northward, he established stations in a great circle from New Zealand to Alaska and measured fluctuations with pressure-sensing devices lowered to the ocean floor.

In 1963, Munk led a study of attenuation in ocean swells generated in Antarctica. The program measured fluctuations with pressure sensing devices lowered to the ocean floor. Measurements also were made at six Pacific Ocean locations and from FLIP, the Floating Instrument Platform, developed at Scripps.

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. With Frank E. Snodgrass, Munk received the first award for ocean science and engineering given by the Marine Technology Society.

Throughout the 1990s Munk 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

Further reading
Walter Heinrich Munk Biography, The Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives.

The Vetlesen Prize, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.



Cleveland, C. (2012). Munk, Walter Heinrich. Retrieved from


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