La Jolla walkway named for Walter Munk, 100

Walter Munk, in wheelchair, is presented plaques of appreciation by State Assemblyman Todd Gloria, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, and San Diego City Councilwoman Barbara Bry. Also in the photo are UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla (seated) and Munk’s wife, Mary (leaning over him)


By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

LA JOLLA, California–Famed oceanographer Walter Munk  predicted that a beach walkway named for him Wednesday on the eve of his upcoming 100th birthday won’t survive as long as he has unless nations cooperate to fight climate change by converting fossil fuels into renewable energy.

At a ceremony at Kellogg Park at La Jolla Shores, Munk, whose centennial birthday is October 19, 2017, predicted the beach and walkway along La Jolla’s prime coastline will be inundated by rising seas if matters continue as they are.  The scientist who successfully predicted wave heights in time for Allied landings in North Africa and subsequently at Normandy during World War II said that just as military officials and scientists of Allies working together produced the miracle of the successful landings, so too must scientists and political leaders forge a miracle of cooperation to stave off rising seas.

Similarly, Munk noted, scientists had worked together “to understand the acoustics of the ocean” to develop protective programs for warding off Nazi German submarines–another project in which he was a principal.

“We had cooperation between different parties of the United States; we had good relations with our Allies. We need to do the same kind of thing now to get a similar miracle,” added Munk, who is known popularly as the “Einstein of Oceanography.”

Like Einstein, Munk was a Jewish refugee from Nazi controlled Europe. He left his native country of Austria, first for Norway, and later for the United States, arriving in La Jolla 75 years ago.

“On the scientific side, we need to learn how to convert fossil energy to renewable energy,” Munk continued in a brief talk preceding the unveiling of a Walter Munk Way sign on the walkway. “It’s a tremendous job but I really believe it can be done with a similar effort that we had in World War II.”  He added that a spirit of bipartisanship is essential in the United States, and “we need to have good relations with the United Nations and our Allies.”

Munk concluded his remarks by stating that it is his “fervent hope” that there will be a 100th anniversary for the new Walter Munk Way.

On the dais to celebrate Munk’s lifelong accomplishments were three elected officials and two higher education administrators.  The elected officials were San Diego City Councilwoman Barbara Bry (whose district includes La Jolla); State Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.  Education officials were UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep. K. Khosla, and Vice Chancellor Margaret Leinen, who serves as director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with which Munk still is formally affiliated.  Munk’s second wife, Mary, who is heading a project to create a large outdoor display of the sea life that lives in the underwater La Jolla Grand Canyons, also spoke briefly.

Bry, who announced October 19th has been designated Walter Munk Day in the City of San Diego, began the parade of accolades for Munk by noting that oceanographer participated in 2015 in a study by the Vatican that led to Pope Francis’s encyclical decrying man-made climate change.  She noted that Munk has been a leading scientist in humanity’s understanding of “ocean currents, tides, deep ocean mixing, wind waves, tsunamis, seismic waves and the earth’s rotation” and related that his former students recently discovered pygmy devil rays in the Sea of Cortez which they gave the scientific name of Mobula munkiana in his honor.

While Munk basked in the accolades and the warm California sun, Chancellor Khosla related three brief anecdotes that he said typified the oceanographer.  On one occasion, he said, Munk had discovered new information on an oceanographic matter that he wanted to add as a correction to a previously written paper.  The problem, said Munk, “I don’t know if people take corrections after 40 years.” He was the only surviving author of the paper that had been co-written with other scientists.  Khosla suggested Munk’s desire to keep improving upon knowledge is one of many strong points.

A second anecdote concerned a time Khosla made a trip to Arizona, where he met a 91-year-old retired physicist.  Inquiring if the physicist knew of Munk, the physicist responded that not only did he know of him, but that back in his student days, he already had regarded Munk as an icon in his field.

The third anecdote concerned Dartmouth College’s desire to present Munk with its highest academic honor.  Munk shyly said there might be a problem with that: Dartmouth had awarded him the same honor 40 years previously.

Dr. Leinen, the current director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, recalled that it was the New York Times that had dubbed Munk the “Einstein of Oceanography.”  It was his wave predictions that helped the Allies land safely at Normandy, his studies that developed warning systems for tsunamis, and his tenacity that gave World War II Allies the edge in submarine warfare. Munk fleshes out the concept of a “living legend.”

Assemblyman Gloria said that in the Legislature, elected officials like to play the game, “who is the most famous person in your district?”  In cities to the north of San Diego, members of the Legislature mention Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; television personality Oprah Winfrey, and various Hollywood celebrities.  Gloria said he proudly claims Munk as his most famous constituent. He added that the State of California is inspired by Munk’s vision, having set for itself a goal to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy.

Supervisor Roberts commented that there already is a Neptune Street in La Jolla  It’s only appropriate that there be a Walter Munk Way because “he’s done a lot more for the oceans than Neptune!” Roberts quipped.

Munk took home from the ceremony a collection of plaques and resolutions from the U.S. Senate (Dianne Feinstein), U.S. House of Representatives (Scott Peters), California State Senate (Toni Atkins), Assembly (Gloria), County Board of Supervisors (Roberts), and City Council (Bry)

He also was serenaded as an “elder of the sea’ by Kimoteo Kupahulehua from Maui, Hawaii, who ceremonially blew a conch shell in his honor.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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One Response to “La Jolla walkway named for Walter Munk, 100”

  1. Eva Trieger says:

    Sounds like it was a lovely tribute to a brilliant man who was ahead of his time.
    Thanks for the article!


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