Oct 30

Richardson: Late Famed Oceanographer’s Legacy is One of “Lives Saved”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 9:12 AM

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When retired Adm. John Richardson, former Chief of Naval Operations, reflected on the legacy of the late oceanographer Walter Munk, perhaps the most striking impact from a career that stretched over a century is this: Lives saved.

Munk’s vast research work – from predicting waves so amphibious landing forces could avoid the harshest seas to understanding underwater sound transmission to find, or hide, submarines – stretched from World War II through the Cold War and to current day, Richardson told an audience last week at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Admiral John M. Richardson, USN, (Ret.) speaks at the close of the Walter Munk Legacy Celebration at Scripps Seaside Forum on October 17, 2019.

“If you think about, for a second, what it would have meant to the United States and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact – and the free world, to be more accurate – to actually have had a ‘Hot War’ instead of a Cold War, you’re talking about devastation on the scale we’d never even thought about before,” he said. Advances in areas like ocean acoustics, inertial navigation and missile technology were “key to keeping us ahead… (and) kept up from having to engage in an actual physical fight.”

“Walter Munk (was) in the middle of that in so many ways,” said Richardson, who retired in August as the chief of naval operations.

Richardson spoke on Munk’s contributions to the Navy during a day-long symposium Oct. 17 at Scripps, an oceanfront campus where Munk had remained active as a professor emeritus of geophysics until his death in February at the age of 101. Munk, who would have turned 102 on Saturday, held the Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Oceanography Chair at the institution where he had a 78-year career.

Dozens of former colleagues, scientists and friends who joined family for the symposium included Richard L. Garwin, 91, physicist and arms control expert who designed the first hydrogen bomb, and D. James Baker, 82, a physicist and oceanographer who served as NOAA administrator from 1993 to 2001. The New York Times, in a 2015 profile, called Munk “the Einstein of the Oceans,” but colleagues said he hated the moniker and always remained modest.

The Austrian-born Munk, who came to the United States at the age of 14, earned degrees from the California Institute of Technology and the Scripps Institution of Oceanographer, worked with the Navy along with other scientists and was a member of the secretive JASON defense advisory group. His work with the Navy over the years included projects on long-range ocean acoustics and wave studies for the Office of Naval Research’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department. A 1991 project with the Navy research ship MV Cory Chouest, called the Heard Island experiment, tested the transmission of sound through the ocean and methods to determine changes in ocean temperature.

In 2010, he received the coveted 2010 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his lifelong contributions to ocean science. “The research and experimental programs that Dr. Munk has been involved in for over half a century have paved the way for scientists wishing to understand the science of sound in the sea. He truly is a pioneer,” then-Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, the chief of naval research, said at the award ceremony, according to an ONR release at the time.

Retired Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet first met Munk as a junior officer and appreciated the famed oceanographer’s leadership approach and lifelong learning.

Scripps alum Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, USN, Retired, NOAA, speaks at the close of the Walter Munk Legacy Celebration at Scripps Seaside Forum on October 17, 2019.

Munk would “invite the most junior novice graduate student over at his house and actually ask them questions, and be interested in what they’d have to say and their ideas. That’s just the way he was throughout his entire life,” recalled Gallaudet, a Scripps graduate and former oceanographer of the Navy before he became the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2017. “He was ceaselessly curious about ideas and about things and people.”

Richardson, who met Munk three times, lauded his global contributions that helped bolster the United States as a maritime nation. History has shown “how critical knowledge of the ocean is to our national security, to our national prosperity,” he said. The need to protect the sea lines of goods and communication “necessitated a navy that could think globally” and understand the ocean and how to operate it in since to control the seas at that time really was to control our destiny.”

The Second World War proved that true, starting in North Africa’s beaches and peaking in the landing of Allied forces into France at Normandy that led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. Critical to “Operation Overlord” was Munk and oceanographer Harald Sverdrup’s development of a wave-prediction model used by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his war staff planning those amphibious landings. Munk’s research had stemmed from initial curiosity watching crews operating Higgins boats along North Carolina beaches cut short the day training because waves got too big to operate safely.

It was a risky gamble. “They thought it would be too dangerous for Allied forces to attempt a landing. The German’s assumption, and the chance Eisenhower took, helped preserve the element of surprise that the Allies needed for a successful landing on the beach,” Munk said in a Scripps News interview in 2014 recalling the D-Day landings. ((https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/research-highlight-scripps-and-science-behind-d-day-landings))

Munk, at a 2017 symposium, discussed his wave-prediction work and how he and Sverdrup “persuaded the powers to be to set up a school here at Scripps, where we had Navy and U.S. Air Corps officers attend.” Their work “was quite successful…, with some major failures, like Tarawa, where we missed the tides and had the bottom topography wrong,” he acknowledged of the 1943 battle in the Pacific. ((http://waltermunkfoundation.org/symposium-on-internal-waves/))

Robertson said Munk’s wave-prediction research led to “a fundamental contribution to shaping world events for the future. Our existence literally held in the balance there, and Walter contributed to that.”

A young Walter Munk with mentor Harald Sverdrup. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives, UC San Diego Libraries)

Munk’s contributions continued through the Cold War era and nuclear age that saw the deadly force of nuclear fission and strategic capabilities of nuclear propulsion. Until his death, he was among a shrinking group of people who actually witnessed a nuclear detonation. Atomic energy and nuclear propulsion provided “the ability to go to sea for a long time,” said Richardson, a veteran submarine officer.

The world’s continually-changing geo-strategic environment and continuing population growth represent another another tech-driven inflection point. Richardson implored the audience to “capture our inner Walter Munk, if we can.”

The ocean is “remarkably busy,” with increases in global shipping, ocean infrastructure such as undersea cables and expanding megacities that demand more of fisheries and aquaculture, he said, with climate change challenging all of that. “The call to duty, the call to action, could not be more vivid,” he said.

“This was the inspiration, really, for standing up Task Force Ocean,” Robertson added. ((https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=99455)) “But we’ve got to get that now to be habitual and stable for the long term” with continuing research.

Task Force Ocean, which he created along with Gallaudet in March 2017 with $65 million in initial funding, is an initiative with the Officer of Naval Research with to ”advance Navy-relevant ocean science in the U.S., energize partnerships between the Navy, academia and the private sector and grow the Navy’s ocean science talent pool,” according to ONR. That research relationship between the Navy and Scripps remains strong today with research that and ONR remains strong today – something Munk himself would certainly approve.((https://futureforce.navylive.dodlive.mil/2019/10/an-orchestra-of-instruments-discovering-the-sea-at-scripps/))

“After the war, I tried to focus on other things besides wave predictions,” he told Scripps News in 2014, “but the waves kept calling to me.”

Sources:

https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/research-highlight-scripps-and-science-behind-d-day-landings

https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb1059018b

https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb6417429q

https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/collection/bb20151229

https://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2010/Walter-Munk-Crafoord-Oceanography-ONR