1999Basic SciencesEarth and Planetary Sciences, Astronomy and Astrophysics
Walter H. Munk photo

Walter H. Munk

  • U. S. A. / 1917-2019
  • Oceanographer
  • Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California

Outstanding Contribution to the Earth Science by the Elucidation of Dynamical Mechanism of Ocean and Its Waves

During a research career that has spanned more than a half century, Dr. Munk has made fundamental contributions to understanding various ocean waves and tides and the mechanism of oceanic circulation. He was also the first to shed light upon the influence of the atmospheric and oceanic motions on the rotation of the earth, bringing a new development of studies in this field. Through these achievements, he has enormously influenced and promoted the development of earth science, especially oceanography, in the latter half of the 20th century.


Brief Biography

Born in Vienna, Austria
Come to U. S
B. S., California Institute of Technology
Ph. D., in Oceanography, University of California
Associate Professor of Geophysics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California
Professor of Geophysics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California

Selected Awards and Honors

Arthur L. Day Medal, American Geological Society
Sverdrup Gold Medal, American Meteorological Society
Gold Medal, The Royal Astronomical Society
William Bowie Medal, American Geophysical Union
National Academy of Science, The Royal Society, London, American Meteorological Society, The Royal Meteorological Society

Major Works


Wind, sea, and swell: theory of relations for forecasting. (with H. U. Sverdrup) U.S. Hydrographic Office Tech. Rpt., 1946


On the wind-driven ocean circulation.J. Meteorol., 1950


The Rotation of the Earth: A Geophysical Discussion. (with G. J. F. MacDnald) Cambridge University Press., 1960


Space-time scales of internal waves. (with C. Garrett) Geophys. Fluid Dyn., 1972


Ocean acoustic tomography: a scheme for large scale monitoring. (with C. Wunsch) Deep-sea Res., 1979


Ocean Acoustic Tomography.(with P. Worcester and other) Cambridge University Press., 1995


Outstanding Contribution to the Earth Science by the Elucidation of Dynamical Mechanism of Ocean and Its Waves

Dr. Munk has made outstanding front running researches in numerous fields of oceanography for more than half a century and contributed extensively to the development of ocean science by continuously exerting enormous influence on the area.

Together with Dr. Sverdrup, Dr. Munk developed for the first time in the world the wave prediction theory that predicts changes in statistically representative values of wave periods and heights, through his pioneering research on the mechanisms of wave generation and development. This theory became the base for the subsequent development of wave prediction, and it is still vital in today’s wave forecasting. Through measurements of sunlight scattered by ripples on the ocean surface, Dr. Munk determined the relationship between the properties of waves and sea winds, and established the foundation for today’s satellite-based electronic remote sensing of sea winds.

Furthermore, Dr. Munk developed the theory of ocean currents to show that the Kuroshio and other major ocean currents are driven by winds blowing over the ocean surface and affected by the coastal friction brought through ocean eddies as well as the effect of the earth’s rotation. He neatly explained actual ocean current distribution, from subarctic to equatorial currents, based on observed wind distribution. The well-known term “gyre” was first introduced by Dr. Munk. He also shed light on the mechanism determining strong currents in the western boundary layers of the oceans which is now known as “Munk layer”. These are examples of his work which led to the creation of the framework for present-day theories on wind-driven ocean circulation.

Later on he investigated dynamical properties of internal gravity waves in the ocean and discovered a space-time spectral form having universal applicability. This finding gave strong impacts on researchers and discussion is still going on concerning the origin of the spectral form.

Dr. Munk’s research has also extended to geophysics, or physics of the solid earth. He made the first proposal for the sampling of materials from the earth’s mantle by means of ocean crust drilling, which led to the MOHOLE project, and further to a range of international projects such as the current Ocean Drilling Program. These movements encouraged new developments in studies on geophysics and the history of the earth. Dr. Munk was also the first to demonstrate that atmospheric and ocean movements cause irregularities in the earth’s rotation, a discovery that opened to a new era of research on this issue.The Rotation of the earth, which he co-authored with Dr. MacDonald, has become a “compulsory reading” for researchers working in the field.

In recent years, he has been advocating “acoustic ocean tomography” using sound waves transmitted underwater as a means of ocean measurement, and he is enthusiastically working towards development of this method.

As presented above, Dr. Munk has contributed to the development of earth science and of oceanography, in particular by his outstanding achievements. He has constantly pioneered new frontiers in global-scale ocean research by introducing innovative ideas, while training many young researchers to develop and realize these ideas. For these reasons, the Inamori Foundation is pleased to bestow upon Dr. Munk the 1999 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences.


Abstract of the Lecture

The Luck of Walter Munk

We have been asked to talk about ourselves. I have chosen the title of a talk given by Roger Revelle at the time of my sixty-fifth birthday.

I was born in Austria, a land locked country, and sent to America at a very young age to learn something about banking in a New York Company that my grandfather had helped to start. After a few years of mediocre performance, I escaped to California and managed to get admitted to the California Institute of Technology. In my junior year I took a summer job at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and have been there (off-and-on) every since.

The war intervened, and after service in the U.S. Army, I became involved in predicting wave conditions for amphibious landings. After the war I led an expedition following ocean waves from their birth in southern hemisphere storms to their demise in Alaska. This led to studies of waves of ever longer periods, tsunamis and tides. Tidal dissipation studies led to studies of the wobble of the Earth and in changes in the length of day.

I was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to drill a hole in the bottom of the sea to recover samples of the Earth’s mantle. More recently, we have used long-range acoustic transmission to measure variability in ocean climate. These two activities evoked a good deal of public attention, mostly unfavorable.

I have had the good fortune in serving my government in various capacities, particularly in relation to the U.S. Navy. I have started a geophysical research institute within the Scripps Institution, a part of the University of California at San Diego.
In retrospect, my career has not followed any directed rational effort. Rather it has consisted to responding to a multitude of opportunities as they arose. I have been very fortunate in that some of these have been successful.

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Frontier of the Ocean Research

Nov.12, 1999 13:10-17:15
Kyoto International Conerence Center
Taroh Matsuno, Member of the Kyoto Prize Screening Committee; Director-General, Frontier Research System for Global Change and Yoshiaki Toba, Professor Emeritus, Tohoku University
Taro Matsuno


Opening Taro Matsuno
Greetings Toyomi Inamori
Managing Director, The Inamori Foundation
Seiya Uyeda
Member of the Kyoto Prize Committee
Leader, Institute for Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), International Frontier Program on Earthquake Research
Introduction of Laureate Yoshiaki Toba
Laureate Lecture