A conversation with world-renowned oceanographer, Walter Munk
by DAVE SCHWAB
Published - 10/16/17 - 10:22 AM | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Walter Munk will turn 100 on Thursday, Oct. 19. / PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
Walter Munk will turn 100 on Thursday, Oct. 19. / PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
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Walter Heinrich Munk was born on Oct. 19, 1917. He is a physical oceanographer and professor of geophysics emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. He is one of the world's foremost authorities on winds, waves and other projects.

Munk's distinguished list of accomplishments includes: Being the first person to show why one side of the moon always faces the Earth; pioneering research on the relationship between winds and ocean circulation; investigating irregularities in the Earth's rotation and their impacts on the planet; description of ocean wave behavior while investigating ocean tides; and furthering the study of global warming via the relation between changes in ocean temperature, sea level, and the transfer of mass between continental ice and the ocean. Munk's research into tides helped guide the Allies in selecting where and when to land in Normandy on D-Day.

On Oct. 18, a day before his centennial birthday, La Jolla Shores boardwalk was renamed Walter Munk Way honoring the esteemed scientist.

Known as the “Einstein of the oceans,” Walter Munk has been entertained — and honored — by the Pope and dignitaries worldwide.

He's returned the favor, having himself hosted international VIPs like the Dali Lama at his blufftop La Jolla home which he and his first wife, Judith, an architect, built themselves. Not surprisingly, the Munk homestead has an ocean view to die for.

“I can't tell you how many times we've watched sunsets in my life,” recounts Walter about the “Munkdom” adding, “I've seen many green flashes in my 70 years here.”

Munk has also had a manta ray named for him, which is the topic of a film screened recently at Arclight theaters as part of the International Film Festival titled “Spirit of Discovery.”

La Jolla Village News recently caught up with the esteemed oceanographer in an hour-long, sit-down interview at his home office, which features a terracotta warrior given to him by the Chinese.

In a Q & A session, Munk talked about his life, his work, global warming and the future of the planet.

LJVN: We know a lot of your work today involves research into global warming. Have we passed the “tipping point,” the point of no return past which the Earth's warming cannot be reversed?

Munk: We have not passed that. I think there is no question that human beings have caused climate change.

LJVN: How do you slow down, reverse, climate change?

Munk: We're doing it. A key is to go from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It's an enormous challenge.

(Munk, who had enlisted in the Army as a foot soldier during World War II got “pressed” into service in research efforts to combat German submarines, which were taking a heavy total on the allies early in the war.)

LJVN: You played a significant role in combatting German submarines in World War II.

Munk: We didn't know how to find submarines. I would say today's problem (global warming) is equivalent to the submarine problem.

LJVNL: How were subs detected?

Munk: By everybody working together internationally to find that sonar (sound) could be used to detect them.

LJVN: Are there signs presently of global warming manifesting itself?

Munk: We've had lots of hurricanes this year. I don't understand whether or not that's just by chance, or related to climate change. What if it happens again next year? Would we have to do something (evacuating) about the whole East Coast? What do you do, move millions of Americans to Texas? What would be the answer to continuing to have the kind of hurricanes, or worse, that we had this year? Would we need to make part of America uninhabitable?

LJVN: Tell us about your research on Arctic ice melt.

Munk: The Arctic has both floating ice and land ice on Greenland. The floating ice is melting. It's going to be gone in the summer within a few years. That does not change sea level much. But the reflectivity of ice is much much bigger than that of water. So as you lose sea ice, the land ice will start melting (absorbing sunlight) more quickly. And the land ice on Greenland is equivalent to 9 millimeters (in sea level rise). In (coastal) La Jolla, 9 meters of sea level rise is not an attractive feature. Especially since the (La Jolla Shores) boardwalk is going to be named for me. What's going to happen to the Munk walk?

LJVN: Did you always want to be an oceanographer?

Munk: My grandfather was a Viennese banker. I was a poor student. I liked to ski. When I was age 15, my parents exiled me to a school in New York. My mother wanted me to be a banker but I hated it. She gave me some money and I bought a car and drove to the West Coast to visit a college. But I was so naïve, I didn't know that you had to apply. I thought you just had to show up (to be accepted). The dean was so amused, he said, “I'll let you stay for a month and take an exam.” For the first time in my life, I studied like mad and I passed the exam.

(Later following a love interest down to San Diego, Munk, on the rebound, found a new love — Scripps Institution of Oceanography.)

LJVN: What was Scripps like in the early days?

Munk: I was the only student. We had 15 people there, including the director and the gardener. Everything was very small, down by the pier.

LJVN: How many Scripps' employees today?

Munk: 1,500. Isn't that something?

LJVN: We understand you're still working every day.

Munk: I've retarded, but not retired. I work from my home office and I go to Scripps two or three times a week.

LJVN: We'd like to congratulate you on your 100th birthday.

Munk: The nicest birthday present I could want, numerous letters from students of mine from all over the world saying I'd done something to help them, has already happened. That's all I could ask for. So I'm very happy.

LJVN: What are your plans for the future?

Munk: I've got a paper I'd like to finish, that I've been working on for the last 50 years off and on, about how the wind drives the ocean and the Gulf Stream. That's what I'm going to do.

LJVN: To what do you attribute your success?

Munk: I would never have had the career I've had without Judith and my second wife, Mary Coakley Munk. They both played such a significant part in my career, helping me getting work done.

LJVN: What's it like to be one of the most prominent oceanographers on the planet?

Munk: An oceanographer is just a big word for being a plumber.

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