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Massive undersea mountain is named after famed La Jolla oceanographer Walter Munk

Walter Munk
Oceanographer Walter Munk smiles during a dedication ceremony for the La Jolla Shores boardwalk being renamed Walter Munk Way in October 2017.
(File / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The mountain is in water more than 3 miles deep and has a diameter of roughly 22 miles.

An underwater mountain in the Pacific Ocean that is taller than the highest peak in Southern California has been named in honor of Walter Munk, the late UC San Diego oceanographer and La Jolla resident known as the “Einstein of the Oceans.”

The 12,477-foot seamount was picked up on sonar by the UCSD research ship Sally Ride two years ago as it cruised 1,100 miles west-southwest of Hawaii, not long after Munk died at age 101 in February 2019.

Sonar revealed that geophysicist David Sandwell, one of Munk’s colleagues, had discovered a massive guyot, an undersea mountain with a flat top.

The mountain is in water more than 3 miles deep, and its top is more than 4,000 feet below the surface, in darkness. It has a diameter of roughly 22 miles. The highest peak in Southern California is San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,499 feet.

“It was so huge,” said Sandwell, a researcher at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We wanted to name it after Walter because we loved him.”

The International Hydrographic Organization approved the name earlier this year, but UCSD just made the announcement, timing it to Munk’s birthday Oct. 19.

Under rays of sunshine in La Jolla Shores, a cartoon ray was unveiled and robots swam as part of a celebration of the 104th birthday of late oceanographer Walter Munk.

Munk was one of the most esteemed oceanographers of the 20th century, based on work he did at Scripps. SIO became his home shortly before the start of World War II, when he was a graduate student.

He began performing research on behalf of the Navy and soon developed better ways to forecast surf conditions. Munk’s research helped Allied forces fine-tune their landing at Normandy for the D-Day invasion, likely saving lives. His wavecasting and weather research also helped captains guide their ships more safely in the open ocean.

An underwater mountain 1,100 miles south-southwest of Hawaii has been named after Walter Munk.
(Courtesy of David Sandwell / UC San Diego )

After the war, Munk helped create and lead a series of deep-sea expeditions that profoundly changed how scientists think about everything from oceanic currents to the composition of the seafloor to the presence of marine life miles below the surface. That made him one of the leaders of the so-called golden era of ocean exploration in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Munk built on that work throughout his life and expanded into areas like climate change.

Much of his work involved a combination of logic and chance — which also was involved in Sandwell’s discovery of the seamount.

Satellite imagery of the surface of the Pacific suggested there might be undersea mountains in a specific area. Sandwell persuaded the leaders of the R/V Sally Ride to briefly visit that area in 2019 as the ship was sailing between Hawaii and Guam.

The side trip and additional research revealed that the mountain exists on an area of crust that is at least 117 million years old. Over the years, the crust sank as it shifted away from heat sources, causing the seamount to progressively slip beneath the ocean’s surface.

“There wasn’t much time to do this research, but we [Scripps] nailed it,” said Bruce Applegate, who oversees the university’s fleet of research vessels.

“The slopes of the mountain don’t appear to have the same vertical relief of Mount Whitney. But the mountain is majestic.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.