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Medal Honors Scripps Icon Walter Munk’s Lifetime of Science and Exploration

Famed Explorers Club’s top accolade to recognize Scripps geophysicist’s contributions to science and society at New York event


  • Mario C. Aguilera

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  • Mario C. Aguilera

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Walter Munk, new Explorers Medal recipient, at Heard Island, 1991. Image credit, Jeff Corda

A year ago the Explorers Club recognized director James Cameron with its coveted Explorers Medal during its annual dinner in New York City. The organization honored the famed director not for movie making but for his historic dive to the deepest point on the planet, an expedition in which Cameron relied heavily on the scientific and engineering expertise at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

This year Scripps has an even more prominent place at the Explorers Club’s annual gathering.

Saluting a lifetime of scientific exploration, the Explorers Club will honor renowned Scripps scientist Walter Munk with the Explorers Medal at its 110th annual dinner March 15 at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The event, “Exploration & Technology: Celebrating Innovation in Discovery,” will pay homage to Munk’s contributions to scientific exploration and discovery, achievements that have made him known prominently as the world’s greatest living oceanographer.

“The Directors and Officers of the Explorers Club take great pleasure in awarding the Explorers Club Medal to Walter H. Munk, Ph.D., for his extraordinary contributions to oceanography, pioneering marine science, and more specifically to our understanding of the inner workings of the Earth’s oceans,” notes the official Explorers Club Medal citation.

Among its lofty membership ranks, the Explorers Club has boasted an array of science and adventure luminaries, including those first to reach the earth’s poles, its highest peak, lowest depth, and the surface of the moon.

In honoring Walter Munk, the club recognizes the geophysicist’s multitude of scientific achievements, which include working with his mentor and famed oceanographer Harald Sverdrup in developing a system for forecasting breakers and surf on beaches, a technique applied broadly in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of World War II, including the allied landings at Normandy. Munk also has explored Earth’s rotation, long-range acoustics, and more recently the relationship between changes in ocean temperature, sea level, and the ocean between ice sheets and the seafloor.

“I think of ‘exploration’ as an initial step of learning about a subject,” said Munk, 96. “Asking the right questions is a crucial element... I have been more successful in asking the right questions than giving the right answers.”

Walter Munk at Alexa Bank atoll during the Capricorn Expedition (1952-1953). This was the first Scripps Institution of Oceanography expedition to use scuba divers to explore the Pacific. Image credit, Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives, UC San Diego Library.

“Since coming to Scripps Institution of Oceanography 75 years ago as a young doctoral student, Walter Munk has become one of the world’s most highly respected oceanographers and has been a face of Scripps and of oceanography, as well as an ambassador for science,” said Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps. “I’m delighted that the Explorers Club has bestowed this honor upon him. No one deserves to be recognized as a scientific explorer more than Walter.”

Munk joins a distinguished list of scientists with ties to Scripps who have been honored by the Explorers Club including Honorary Membership honors to Robert Fisher (2003), Sally Ride (1984; the namesake of the new research vessel to be operated by Scripps in 2015), and Carl Hubbs (1981).

“Walter exemplifies a focus on bringing the treasures of his research to the benefit of our world,” said Rick Elkus, an Explorers Club member and longtime Scripps supporter. “He has and continues to dramatically push the bounds of what is known and what should be known. I think Walter is motivated by a deep sense of wanting to contribute to his community through a better understanding of what makes the world work.”

Munk also was the visionary force behind the establishment of the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps, a center that has flourished with leading researchers in groundbreaking areas spanning earthquakes to geomagnetism to a host of other Earth processes. Such efforts made Munk a clear candidate to receive the Explorers Medal, which is given “for extraordinary contributions directly in the field of exploration, scientific research, or to the welfare of humanity.”

“Walter has hardly slowed in his curiosity of how the oceans work,” said John Orcutt, a long-time colleague at IGPP and Scripps. “He continues to work on many scientific fronts and is particularly attracted to the idea of an ‘Arctic Watch’ to measure the transition of the Arctic from a largely ice-covered sea to a new ocean exposed to space as the ocean continues to warm and the Arctic to melt. He’s taken an international leadership role in observations of the Arctic, including a partnership with Norway to make scientific observations from an ocean cable to maintain the fidelity of climate measurements over an extended time, something his earlier (Scripps) colleague, Dave Keeling, was so successful with in measuring the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere over decades.”

More than 40 of Munk’s friends will join him at the recognition dinner, which will include more than 900 guests. These include Scripps Director Margaret Leinen, Scripps Assistant Professor Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth, and Scripps Executive Director of Development Stuart Krantz. They will be joined by Scripps Director’s Cabinet Chairman Steve Strachan, Scripps Director’s Cabinet members Patty Elkus (and her husband Rick) and Phil Tauber (and his wife Gayle), as well as Nancy Nenow, an E.W. Scripps Associates member and president of the San Diego Chapter of the Explorers Club, who nominated Munk for the Explorers Medal.

“I had assumed that Walter Munk had already received the Explorers Club Medal, joining ocean pioneers such as Eugenie Clark, Don Walsh, Sylvia Earle, Robert Ballard, and James Cameron,” said Nenow. “When I reviewed the list of past recipients for this high honor, and discovered that Professor Munk had not yet received this well-deserved recognition, I took the next obvious step and nominated this wonderful Scripps oceanographer.”

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