Walter Munk

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Walter Munk Photographs by Emily Scher

Walter Munk

The World’s Greatest Living Oceanographer Strives to See the Tide Turn in the Battle Against Climate Change

Born in 1917, Walter Munk is an Austrian-born American geophysicist and oceanographer whose groundbreaking studies of ocean currents and wave propagation set the foundation for oceanography as we know it today. He is a professor emeritus of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, where he earned his Ph.D. in oceanography. Also holding a master’s degree in geophysics and a bachelor’s in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), his work in the science of wave prediction became part of the planning for the D-Day landings in 1944, and he has done pioneering research in ocean sound transmission, deep-sea tides and even climate change. He has won numerous awards during his research career, including the National Medal of Science in 1983 and the 1999 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences — the first time it was awarded to an oceanographer. 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. He even has an award named in his honor — and in 1993 he was the first recipient of the Walter Munk Award given jointly by the Oceanography Society, the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Defense Naval Oceanographic Office. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Walter Munk about hisextraordinary career, the Dalai Lama’s 80th ebration and the World Compassion Summit.

TJ: How did you first get involved in oceanography?
MUNK: It was by accident. In 1939, I was a junior at Caltech. I had a girlfriend who was going to spend the summer in La Jolla with her grandparents. I needed a job so I could date her, and the only existing jobs at the time were at the “Bug House” (Scripps Institution of Oceanography). I went down to ask the Director, Harald Sverdrup, if I could get a summer job and he said yes. I spent a very happy summer taking my girlfriend out and eating abalones from the Scripps pier for breakfast, lunch and dinner; I have not been able to eat them ever since. I wish I could say I was born with my first word being “oceanography,” but I didn’t know anything about it until I got the job at Scripps. I loved it so much that summer that I was back the next summer asking Sverdrup if he would take me on as his student. After a painful 10 second pause, he said, “I can’t think of a single job that will open up in the next 10 years.” Before he finished his sentence, I said “I’ll take it!” The rest is history.

TJ: How were you invited to take part in the Global Compassion Summit?
MUNK: I had come from a joint meeting of the Ponti cal Academy of Science and Ponti cal Academy of Social Sciences at the Vatican, related to climate change and its impact on the poor that very much influenced my thinking. Ram [Veerabhadran Ramanathan], a scientist from India who also works at Scripps, was co-chair. That meeting had a significant impact on the Pope’s Encyclical that followed. I heard that the Dalai Lama — whom I had briefly met two years earlier when he gave a talk at UCSD — was going to celebrate his 80th birthday in Irvine. Lama Tenzin invited me to participate. Ramanathan and I arranged to give His Holiness a present from Scripps to honor him.

TJ: Was there anyone else at the World Compassion Summit on the same day that impressed you in some way?
MUNK: There were several, but I think that Ramanathan was the most impressive. He’s a Scripps scientist who has worked on climate change since 1980. He knows much more than I do. Ramanathan is his last name; everyone calls him Ram. He’s a big figure in the battle against climate change and he’s in charge of a committee of all 10 campuses of the University of California — Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, etc. We are committed to carbon neutrality in 10 years. It’s a very ambitious goal. Ram is the Chair, and I am a member.

TJ: Can you tell us about the birthday present you gave the Dalai Lama?
MUNK: We asked Margaret Leinen, Scripps Director, if she could suggest a suitable birthday present for the Dalai Lama. Greg Rouse offered to name a species he had recently discovered in honor of His Holiness. It was a deep-sea pelagic worm. In the auditorium, with 6,000 people, the present was offered to him. We said, “Here is a present; we have named a new species after you and it’s going to be called the “Sirsoe Dalailamai.” He said, “Oh, that’s great.” Everybody applauded and he looked very happy. Then Ram said, “Your Holiness, we have to tell you that the new species is a worm.” And everybody laughed. Ann Curry could hardly contain herself and said, “But it’s not a very attractive species!” to which Ram responded, “We want you to know that this is a good worm. It eats methane, and methane is bad.” Ramanathan also said that the reason that it was being given to His Holiness was that this worm gives back more to the environment than it takes from it — just like His Holiness has done for all of his life. So the Dalai Lama graciously accepted the present and then told a very funny story about an experience he had had with worms many years ago.

TJ: What was the highlight of the event for you?
MUNK: I was delighted to meet the Dalai Lama because I admire him. The first time I met him, when he came to UCSD to speak, I admired him for two things: one is that he has a wonderful sense of humor — it’s great fun to be with him. The other is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously like many important people do. He’s very modest.

TJ: Is there anything else that you admire about the Dalai Lama?
MUNK: He was willing to join the Pope in trying to convince the people of America and the global population that they need to take seriously the problems associated with climate change. To have two religious leaders do that is very important; it’s absolutely necessary in order to win that battle.

TJ: What kind of impact do you feel the Dalai Lama’s visit had on the community in Southern California?
MUNK: I think the people who went to honor him on his birthday were genuinely interested in what he had to say. We had 6,000 students involved in the ceremony who were overwhelmingly in favor of implementing his message and came to honor him.

TJ: Over the years do you feel that the world is becoming more or less compassionate?
MUNK: More. It may be just a hope, but I believe it will. The Dalai Lama’s and the Pope’s positions that they have voiced publicly have been a signi cant factor in convincing people that we must all be more compassionate.

TJ: Do you think compassion and climate change go hand in hand?
MUNK: I think that the ocean is intimately involved in the present change in climate. If we want to keep the planet going for the present plants, animals and people, we had better do something about it, and it will take a lot of compassion to do so. There was a New York Times editorial on the first page about climate change that said something that was very surprising to me. I had thought that most people didn’t believe in climate change. The New York Times did a survey and their conclusion was that two thirds of the people are convinced climate change is real. And all I can say is, it’s about time!

TJ: What can we do to protect the ocean?
MUNK: In order to protect our oceans, we need to continue to do meaningful research. On our last visit to Japan we were helicoptered from a local fishing village to the Chikyu, a research vessel with the most advanced drilling capabilities in the world; they are currently attempting to drill to the mantel of the earth, something we tried to do 55 years ago. While aboard, I was greatly surprised and honored to find that they had named their library for me, a moving gesture because our iconic library at Scripps Institution of Oceanography had been closed the year before.

TJ: Can you tell me how your research was involved in World War II?
MUNK: By 1942 the Germans had conquered and occupied most of Europe and German submarines were taking a big toll on Allied shipping. I was working in the Pentagon when I learned about plans for the first Allied initiative of WWII, a landing in Oran in Northwest Africa using LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel). They were practicing landings at a military base in South Carolina, and I had the opportunity to observe the maneuvers. Whenever the waves exceeded five feet they found that the LCVPs would broach, which means to run parallel to shore, and waves would break into the landing craft; people would get hurt. They’d call it a day and say, “We’ll have to wait for a calmer day to continue our exercises.” I went back to the Pentagon and tried to learn what the expected wave heights in Northwest Africa would be in winter. I found that, on the average, they were higher than six feet. I was very junior so I went to my commanding officer and asked him what was being done, and he said don’t worry about it, “they” will have thought about it. Of course, I learned later that there was never any “they.” It seemed the common sense response was that we needed to learn to forecast waves so we could pick a couple of good days for the operation. I recommended to my commanding officer that we should work on that. I had done a little thinking about how one might predict waves and was convinced it could be done; he said “no.” In desperation, I called my director at Scripps, Harald Sverdrup, and asked him to come out and listen to what I thought about wave predictions; he was on a light to D.C. the very next day. He spent a month working with me at the Pentagon. We found that there were three stages. The first was “sea” — learning how the wave hides in periods depending on wind speed, wind direction and wind duration; the second step was “swell” — how the waves were transformed from the generating storm to the landing beaches; and the third was “surf ” — how the landing beaches transform the waves as they move into shallow water. So our predictions were based on three steps: sea, swell and surf. Sverdrup convinced my commanding officer to change his mind and we were asked to 1) participate in the prediction for the forthcoming landing in Oran in Northwest Africa, the first successful Allied initiative of WWII and then 2) to start a class at Scripps for weather meteorologists from the Navy and Army Air Corps, to learn how to predict waves for the forthcoming Pacific Theater of War. During the following year about a hundred and twenty or thirty Meteorology officers graduated. They made the predictions for the Pacific Theater of War landings that were largely successful. Two of our students participated in the wave predictions for the Allied landings in Normandy.

TJ: How has the Fukushima disaster impacted the ocean? Has that nuclear radiation already reached the shores of Southern California?
MUNK: Yes. But it was largely a local problem. The contamination reaching California was detectable, but not of any magnitude that would by itself be considered serious. The kind of thing that happened at Fukushima should be avoided, and could be easily avoided, if the nuclear reactors were located o shore, in deeper water than the breaking tsunamis. Nuclear reactors should never be located shoreward of breaking tsunamis or in shallow water where the reactor is subject to breaking waves. Nuclear installations should either be moved further inland or further offshore — the latter might surprise you. However, if you were able to build the nuclear reactors in the depths of water that well exceeded the breaking depths of a tsunami, which is something like 20 or 30 feet, you would be subject to much weaker forces. I think we could manage very well to have o shore sea-based installations. But the worst thing you can do is to build nuclear plants on the coast, near the coast or in shallow water.


TJ: Are you concerned that San Onofre, California, is a lot like Fukushima?
MUNK: I am not as well informed, but I think that the reasons they have decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station were not because of the fear of a tsunami, but because there were problems with the design and problems with the removal and storage of waste materials. It has nothing to do with the source of the Fukushima disaster, because it is on relatively high ground. My position is that an installation of o shore nuclear reactors, well exceeding the breaking depths of tsunamis, would be adequate — and they don’t need to be very far offshore. The removal of waste materials could be done very safely, but storage remains an unresolved issue. The advantage is that many places where there is a need for more electric power are big cities in the world that are coastal, and one could have a design for offshore reactors — maybe smaller than the present ones — which could all be built using the same or very similar plans. This would be much better than the present procedure where each of these installations is involved with a new set of designs and safety rules with enormous delays in getting permission to build. I hope that Fukushima does not turn the whole world away from o shore power production because I think that nuclear power can be produced safely and relatively cheaply.

TJ: Who has been the biggest influence on you and your career?
MUNK: Several people here at Scripps: first of all, my Director, Harald Sverdrup, whose name I mentioned to you earlier. He gave me my first summer job and then came and worked with me at the Pentagon to learn how to predict waves for the first successful Allied offensive of WWII. As a result of our success, the Navy asked us to set up classes at Scripps to teach wave predictions to the Army Air Corp and Navy Meteorologists; we graduated over 120 Officers who made the predictions for the Pacific Theater of War and ultimately for the Normandy Landings. That led to my lifetime relationship with the Navy and I have been fortunate to hold the Secretary of the Navy Chair for the past 34 years. The other person was Roger Revelle, who became Director of Scripps after Sverdrup. He was a very broad-minded person and the inspiration behind UCSD. He played a major role in studying climate change and preparing people to do something about it. He was very much an influence in my career.

TJ: What is your proudest achievement?
MUNK: Perhaps my most important contribution was learning how to predict waves, because it saved thousands of lives in WWII.

TJ: What are your goals for the future?
MUNK: I vow to take part in the various climate studies that attempt to help find a way to avoid a disaster which could happen in 30, 40 or 50 years if we don’t do something about the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. We must find a way to reduce that contamination. I am also very interested in a couple of other projects I’m working on. Damien Leloup and I started the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology at UCSD, the first one on the west coast, and I very much look forward to following its development. I’m also working on an unresolved problem from the 1950’s dealing with the fundamental physics of wind drag on the water.

TJ: What do you feel is the most important thing that you have learned throughout your lifetime that you would like to share with students and scientists?
MUNK: Throughout my career, I have been lucky to ask the right questions. I would encourage students and colleagues, if they possibly can, to work on what they think is the most challenging problem and not to worry about the outcome, or how difficult it is. I think that students nowadays have become so worried about funding and getting jobs that they are afraid to tackle a problem that is daring — an experiment that might not work. We as faculty should be prepared to give degrees if thesis work involves an experiment that failed, but was properly executed. We should encourage our students to do daring research. I have found that, in many instances, negative results have led to increased knowledge. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.

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