Pioneering oceanographer Walter Munk dies of pneumonia in California

Monday, February 11, 2019

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The death of pioneering oceanographer Walter Munk was announced on Friday by the University of California, San Diego. He was 101 and died of pneumonia in La Jolla, California.

Munk in 2010.
Image: Holger Motzkau.

Munk was born in Austria, but he emigrated to the United States to pursue his education, before moving to California in 1939 due to a love interest in La Jolla. Although this romance failed, he remained there, taking a job at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served in the US Army in World War Two, before being recalled to Scripps where he assisted in work to predict likely wave conditions during Allied landings on both Pacific and Atlantic coasts. He also researched ways to counter military submarines.

Munk's work was later used during the D-Day landings. Post-war, he was involved in nuclear weapons research, observing a 1950s atomic bomb test from a raft and receiving fallout from it. Other research interests included oceanic currents and the interrelation of the sea with the planetary climate.

Earning a post-war PhD in oceanography from University of California, Los Angeles, Munk was an early scientific adopter of scuba equipment and in addition to physical processes was also interested in marine life. A species of devil ray known to leap out the water as if taking flight was named after Munk.

"Walter was the most brilliant scientist I have ever known," said University of California, San Diego's chancellor, Pradeep Khosla. Khosla talked of Munk's "countless discoveries that put the university on the map as a great research institution" and "his global leadership on the great scientific issues of our time." Scripps Oceanography director Margaret Leinen said "Munk has been a world treasure for ocean science and geophysics." She described him as "a guiding force, a stimulating force, a provocative force in science for 80 years" who was "one of the most distinguished and honored scientists in the world" and "always interested in sparking a discussion about what's coming next."

Awards included a trip to the White House to receive the US National Medal of Science, and the French Legion of Honour, received last year during a visit to Paris.

His wife Mary said "We thought he would live forever. His legacy will be his passion for the ocean, which was endless."