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Dr. Walter Munk, the scientist of surf

“Surf Talk from the Dinner Table.” An appropriate title adopted by Dr. Walter Munk to describe the recount of his seminal research on ocean-wave propagation at the Bishop’s School Science Center earlier this month. The designation pays homage to the typical dinnertime gatherings of notable scientists often found at the Munk household over the years while at the same time acknowledging the focus of his life’s work. A true scientist, obviously passionate about his research, it’s not clear that Dr. Munk fully grasps just how profoundly his research has impacted the entire surfing community.

Surfers love Dr. Munk, as evidenced by his recent induction into the Groundswell Society. A non-profit “think-tank” dedicated to a higher quality of life through innovation, research and spirituality via surfing. Not a surfer per se, he is nonetheless a surfer at heart, obviously fascinated by the ocean, waves in particular, where they come from and how they move. It was his research specifically that gave rise to the ability to predict swells, including the swell’s fetch (direction), expected height, duration and interval (speed).

Considered by many to be one of the greatest living oceanographers, Dr. Munk first began his studies of ocean waves as a request from the Pentagon during World War II. Concerned by the tumultuous conditions of the North Atlantic, the military needed to predict incoming swells before attempting an onshore invasion in North Africa. At the time very few observations were available for predicting the dimensions of the sea. Real-time information was available via weather radios or weather maps, but nothing existed that could predict waves within a useful window of time. Fortunately Dr. Munk and his team were able to analyze the weather map archives from Pan Am airlines giving them a three-year history to establish the patterns and relationships of storms to wave behavior. They then attempted to quantify the wave decay between distant storms and the beaches they were attempting to land. His research proved invaluable and highly accurate, providing data used not only in Africa, but the Normandy landing as well. The military would de-classify Dr. Munk’s findings only after the end of the war. In the early 1960’s he went on to “discover” the source water for summer swells in California originating in faraway Heard Island near New Zealand. Recording stations to document ocean swells were deployed along the 10,000 km ‘great circle’ route from New Zealand to Alaska. Here Dr. Monk mischievously recounts how, “the grad student got Alaska, I picked Samoa,” further confirming the surfer inside the scientist.

Dr. Munk is of course notable for a vast array of contributions to physical oceanography and geophysics, but it was his research and perfection of wave prediction that has had a major influence on how, when and where we surf. Pre-1960 surfers learned of swells by checking the surf or by word of mouth.

During the ’60’s however, interested surfers could extrapolate data from the recording stations (buoys) and determine the viability of an incoming swell. Surfers needed to understand the implications of the degree or angle of swell direction, what the interval stood for in terms of the swell’s power and its corresponding relationship to wave height. This opened new areas for surf exploration as well, revealing previously unexplored regions in the world with promising potential for surfable swells.

It’s commercial application, however, has not been without controversy, further democratizing the line-up with surfers uninterested or unable to understand the implication and interrelationship between swell direction, interval and height. What began in the late 1980’s as an explosion of surf report and forecasting 900 numbers has blossomed into information overload with Web sites forecasting, reporting and broadcasting in excruciating detail all manners of predicted swells, down to which break will produce the best waves.

Unfortunately, the need to understand the buoy readings is becoming a bit of a lost art. The unintended by-product has also produced over-crowding at local beaches as well as more remote, difficult-to-reach locales. Many seasoned surfers remember the impressive south swell of 2004, which found over 400 campers at Scorpion Bay.

Diminished, certainly, are the days of the early bird catching the swell. However, just like many other surfing innovations at first deemed the “final deathblow” to surfing’s soul such as the leash, the wetsuit and the fin, surf forecasting is here to stay and we must adapt. And frankly, it is a matter of extraordinary convenience to know when a swell is expected to hit. Who among us doesn’t check the forecast before making appointments or planning our vacations?

Yes, Dr. Munk, you are truly a surfer. And at a robust 91 years of age, with a lifetime working in and around the salty water, you’re living proof of the health benefits of adopting a surfer’s life immersed in the ocean.