Norwegian oceanographer remembered by Professor Walter Munk

Professor emeritus Walter Munk, the hundred year old oceanographer, visited Norway on the occasion of Maud's homecoming to remind us of the historic importance of oceanography and the heroic age of polar exploration. 

Group photo.
Front row from left: Anna Margrethe Hamre (b. 1921, Harald Ulrik Sverdrup's daughter), Mary Coakly Walter Munk, Ole M. Sejersted, Anders Elverhøi. | Mid row from left: Herman Døhlen, Bente Johannessen, Ola M. Johannessen, Ole Arve Misund, Jan Wanggaard with daughter and grandchild Einar. | Back row from left: Knut Fægri, Cecilie Mauritzen, Nils Gunnar Kvamstø, Øystein Hov and Peter Mosby Haugan.

Professor emeritus Walter Munk at Scripps Institution for Oceanography visited Norway on the occasion of the homecoming of the polar vessel Maud to Vollen in Asker 18th August 2018. Asker is where the vessel was built, and in 1918 embarked on the polar Maud expedition 1918-1925, under the leadership of explorer Roald Amundsen. On board was also the oceanographer Harald Ulrik Sverdrup (1888-1957). 

Extraordinary oceanographer

Walter Munk, born in Vienna in 1917, became Harald Ulrik Sverdrup’s first PhD-student in 1939 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and he worked on the observations from the Maud-expedition.

Munk's main achievements in oceanography and geophysics are related to wind driven gyres, tidal locking (why one side of the Moon always faces the Earth), project Mohole which led to NSF's Deep Sea Drilling Program), ocean waves (ocean swell and ocean tides), ocean acoustic tomography, tides and ocean mixing.

Walter Munk is professor of geophysics emeritus and holds the Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Oceanography Chair at Scripps Institution of Oceanographyin La Jolla, California.

Munk's supervisor

Harald Ulrik Sverdrup (1888-August 1957) is seen as the founder of modern physical oceanography.

He was Vilhelm Bjerknes' assistant from 1911, followed him to Leipzig where he was awarded his doctoral degree. He was the scientific director of the North Polar expedition of Roald Amundsen aboard the Maud from 1918 to 1925. He became in 1926 professor in meteorology at the University of Bergen when Vilhelm Bjerknes moved to Oslo. In 1931 H.U Sverdrup became researcher at Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, and also worked at the Carnegie Institute in Washington D.C. on the observational data from the Maud expeditions.

In 1931 he went on the submarine Nautilus with Hubert Wilkins to study Arctic sea ice from below.

In 1936 he became the director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. He published the textbook The Oceans: Their Physics, Chemistry and General Biology (with Martin W. Johnson and Richard H. Fleming) in 1942, new edition 1970. Their book is the basic curriculum of oceanography for the next 40 years around the world.

H.U Sverdrup became director of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Oslo in 1948. From 1949-1952 he carried out the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition Maudheim in Antarctica. He was professor II in Geophysics at the University of Oslo, and the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences 1954-1957 when he changed the curriculum from the German to the American system. His was vice rector at UiO from May 1957 to his death in August the same year.

Guests at the homecoming of Maud

Walter Munk receiving a gift from Jan Wanggaard, who brought the vessel Maud home. The gift was a part of the ship.  Walter Munk receiving a gift from Jan Wanggaard, who brought the vessel, Maud, home. With him is his daughter and grandson. The gift Munk received was a souvernir from the ship.

Upon the initiative of Ola M Johannessen, the Academy invited Walter Munk for lunch on 20 August together with guests who represented the institutions at which H.U Sverdrup held important positions before the war (University of Bergen) and from 1949 at The Norwegian Polar Institute and the University of Oslo.

During the lunch, Walter Munk (born 1917) held the following historic speech:

There are two reasons for me to be here: One is to celebrate the 100th birth date of the polar vessel Maud, the other reason is to bring something before this Norwegian oceanographic community that has troubled me for a long time and that I would like to get out of the way first.

Portrait of Professor emeritus, Walter Munk.Portrait of Professor emeritus, Walter Munk.

Scripps was founded in 1903, as a marine biological field station, with no vessel. And she existed as a biological marine field station from 1903 until Harald Ulrik Sverdrup became director of Scripps in 1936. The faculty at Scripps was mostly marine biological people who worried about life in the sea. Some people in various places decided that Scripps should go in the direction of an oceanographic institute and called Harald Ulrik Sverdrup to help in that transformation. There was some jealousy that one of the marine biologists at Scripps at the time should have become the director and objected to an outsider taking over the institution.

Harald Ulrik Sverdrup was very thoughtful in the way he took over, with a great deal of respect, tact and patience but had to put up with the situation that was created before he came when Scripps was not centered around oceanography. When the war came closer, the president of the university, Sproul, started what was known as UCDWR, University of California Division of War Research, it was started in 1939. It was an unhappy time. German submarines were sinking allied vessels almost at will. We had to learn something about how to locate German submarines to protect ourselves. UCDWR was formed for the specific purpose to find out how to protect allied vessels against German submarines. Harald Ulrik Sverdrup was made chair of a small group in San Diego and worked at the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego to see what could be done about it. It was almost unbelievable how little we knew about ocean acoustics on the allied side, on how to protect ourselves against German submarines. Harald Ulrik Sverdrup was chair, and every morning at 7 am they piled into a little station wagon that he drove 30 miles to Point Loma from La Jolla to learn something about ocean acoustics. Harald Ulrik Sverdrup was very happy to participate in that effort. He had lost a brother Einar in a British command raid on Spitsbergen. And one of Sverdrup’s sisters had been in jail in Norway. Harald Ulrik Sverdrup was very troubled by this and was happy when he got the permission to take part in the effort to do something against the German submarines.

And I joined the group as a very young investigator knowing very little, but having enjoyed a year getting to know Sverdrup who had agreed to take me on as a student, the only student at the time. When we came to the Point Loma lab one morning, the routine guard looked at Sverdrup and said, I am sorry Dr Sverdup, but I cannot let you in. We thought this was just one of several minor difficulties which may occur in difficult times, but it turned out that he had lost his clearance to work in a naval laboratory, and never regained it as long as he lived. He was very, very troubled by it, and when he returned to Norway he was so happy with what he became a part of, but he remained very sorry and troubled by not having been able to participate in the effort in the UCDWR. He died without any change in that situation. I participated in this because I lost my clearance one month after he did, and it was connected with being Harald Sverdrup’s student . In my case it was reinstated a few months later without explanation and I have worked closely with the US Navy all my life in a very satisfactory way, except in this circumstance involving Harald Ulrik Sverdrup.

Now, I kept complaining to my wife Judy about this incidence for a very long time, and after several decades of complaining she said she could not stand this complaining anymore, I will find out what happened.  There had been a new law, The Freedom of Information Act in the 1960s, and this was almost 50 years later, and people could write in and find out what happened during the war. Judy wrote in saying that I had worked with Harald Ulrik Sverdrup and explained what had happened, and three months later she got back a letter  from the Chief of Naval Operations. It said that very soon after the retraction of the clearances both for Harald Ulrik Sverdrup and Walter Munk, you were both cleared of everything, but I guess you were not told.

Two weeks ago, Mary and I went to Paris for a wonderful ceremony given by the Minister of Environment in France to receive a high French order for the work done by Harald Ulrik Sverdrup and myself on wave behavior which was very helpful at the landing in Normandie. Sverdrup and I had worked out what I think was the first method to predict waves from meteorological data and this was an important thing for the landing in Normandie. The French has honored us in a book where it says, I quote: Some thousands of WWII veterans alive today would have been dead in the surf if it had not been for Harald Ulrik Sverdrup and Walter Munk. We used what we had available and accept that this is a correct statement. We were deeply interested in the forecasting work and enjoyed very much the festivities in Paris in July and I was terribly sorry for Sverdrup not being a part of it. I would like to communicate to our Norwegian friends that Harald Ulrik Sverdrup’s work had been totally positive and appreciated.



This text was published in the monthly news letter for the members of the Academy. 

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