Making Waves


Scripps Oceanographer enlightens locals during ‘Distinguished Speaker Series’

By Pat Sherman

On Jan. 19, world renowned oceanographer Walter Munk shared stories from a career as vast as the oceans he has spent 70 years studying at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Munk addressed a full house during the Distinguished Speaker Series at the La Jolla Community Center for Active Adults on La Jolla Boulevard, formerly known as The Riford Center. The venue’s name was changed late last month to more accurately reflect the demographic it serves. Despite the change, the center will carry on in homage to the late UCSD benefactor, Florence Seeley Riford, said center board member Reena Horowitz.

Beginning his presentation, Munk shared some of the changes he has witnessed in La Jolla since arriving in 1939 to accept a summer job at Scripps, fresh from earning his bachelor’s degree in physics at the California Institute of Technology.

“Scripps had 15 employees, including the gardener,” said Munk, 94. “It now has 1,500.”

Giving partial credit to the U.S. Navy for his lengthy career, Munk confided that it was not a love of oceanography that brought him to La Jolla.

“That wouldn’t be the truth,” he said. “I was dating a girl at Scripps College and she was spending the summer in La Jolla. Well, that romance did not last, but I fell in love with Scripps and I have been in love with Scripps ever since.”

The director of Scripps at the time, oceanographer Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, took Munk on as a doctoral student. Munk recalled his mentor discussing his belief that scientists had missed “a major problem” related to “the melting processes at the bottom of floating ice sheets.”

Munk applied for U.S. citizenship following the occupation and annexation of the German Republic of Austria into Nazi Germany, enlisting in the U.S. Army as a private in 1939. He was later excused from service to help with defense-related research at Scripps, such as the development of methods used to predict surf conditions for Allied landings in North Africa and the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Munk and other researchers determined that there were only a few days a month when weather conditions would be favorable for a landing at Normandy. Though wave conditions turned out to be very poor, after postponing the attack for 24 hours General Dwight Eisenhower proceeded, believing the Allied Forces would lose the element of surprise if they waited for the next tidal cycle.

“General Eisenhower had the courage to make a decision, and I think it was the right one,” Munk said.

Between 1946 and 1958, Munk and his team helped analyze water conditions during the nuclear weapons testing at Bikini Atoll, located in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific. The tests included a 180-foot deep lagoon explosion. Munk said he and his crew used the remnants of two cases of beer to test the rise in water levels caused by the blast — nailing beer cans to palm trees at various heights.

On March 1, 1954, Monk witnessed the explosion of a 17-megaton hydrogen bomb detonated by the U.S. at Bikini Atoll. The covert blast, known as Castle Bravo, resulted in the most severe radiological contamination ever caused by the U.S. Fallout contaminated nearby islanders and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat.

“It was a frightening sight that I have not forgotten after all these years,” Munk said, quipping: “I was there when we were rained upon, but I haven’t been affected, been affected, been affected.”

Munk closed his presentation by weighing in on the topic of global warming and its effect on sea level, the fear his mentor at Scripps had confided in him when he first arrived in 1939.

“Between 1950 and 1990, sea level rose at the rate of 1.5 millimeters per year, of which about one-third was due to thermal expansion of the warming ocean and the other two-thirds were not understood,” he said. “I wrote a paper calling it an enigma. …

“Now, the sea level is rising at 3-½ millimeters per year and we know that most of the water comes from the melting of the Earth’s glaciers,” he said.

“The sea level rise is really scary. … If it goes up a meter (within the next 100 years), which I think it will, 150 million people around the world (will be displaced). The U.S. Navy and other government organizations have accepted that as a security issue.”