05.07.2018 - Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

Celebrating a hundred years of oceanography

© UNESCO/IOC - Left to right: Peter Haugan, IOC Chairman, Walter Munk, and Vladimir Ryabinin, IOC Executive Secretary (Roger Revelle Memorial Lecture, 5 July 2018).

Described by the New York Times newspaper as “the Einstein of Oceanography”, 100-year-old oceanographer Walter Munk delivered the Roger Revelle Memorial Lecture at the 51st Session of the Executive Council of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). The lecture and subsequent award ceremony took place on 5 July at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

Professor Walter Munk came to UNESCO at the invitation of the IOC Secretariat to deliver the landmark lecture of the 51st Session of the IOC Executive Council – one of the governing bodies of the IOC. The Council is responsible for assessing progress and providing guidance in relation to the execution of the IOC work programme. Established in honor of the celebrated oceanographer Roger Revelle, the Lecture honors distinguished scientists whose contribution to oceanography and society is widely recognized or ought to be acknowledged.

Looking back at his career, which by and large contributed to the development of contemporary ocean sciences, Professor Munk dedicated his lecture to none other than Roger Revelle himself, his mentor and friend. He expressed his admiration for Revelle as “an independent great man” and major founder of modern oceanography.

Members of the IOC Executive Council, guests and people watching the live stream all over the world had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear about the foundations of oceanography from one of few of its living founders.

Professor Walter Munk was born in Vienna, Austria, on 19 October 1917. His career as a Physical Oceanographer and Geophysicist spans eight decades and includes contributions to our understanding of ocean currents, tides and deep ocean mixing, wind waves, tsunamis and seismic waves, and the rotation of the Earth. His pioneering work in Acoustic Tomography made it possible to measure ocean temperature and currents by means of acoustics. He has taught and conducted research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography since 1939, where he also created the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics in 1962 and, with Damien Leloup, founded the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology in 2015.

Among his best known research breakthroughs is the Heard Island Feasibility Test of 1993, which demonstrated that low-frequency sound pulses could be recorded half-way around the Earth, confirming the use of Ocean Acoustic Tomography as a tool for monitoring global ocean warming. Through another experiment to record the progression of waves through 6,000 nautical miles from New Zealand to Alaska, he also proved that the California summer swell can originate in the Indian Ocean, halfway around the world.

After delivering his lecture, Professor Munk was awarded the IOC Roger Revelle Medal to honor his lifetime achievements in the ocean sciences. “We come out of your lecture with more enthusiasm than before entering, and certainly with more knowledge,” said Professor Peter Haugan, IOC Chair (Norway), as he handed the Medal to Professor Munk. He expressed his deep thanks to the renowned oceanographer for raising the spirits of today’s oceanographic community.

Earlier in the day, Professor Munk also participated in a brief press conference at UNESCO, where he took questions from Associated Press (AP), Sky News Italia, and the Spanish El País. Always in high spirits and profoundly optimistic, he was keen to show that age should not be a reason to break with his accomplished scientific career. “But why, I’m only a hundred years old!” he jokingly answered, when asked how he finds the energy to continue developing state-of-the-art research.

Professor Munk concluded his lecture with his forward looking motto “This task was done with more enthusiasm than knowledge”, referring to the fact that enthusiasm is the ultimate driver of knowledge generation, scientific discoveries and the contribution of science to society.

The Roger Revelle Medal is the latest in an impressive list of numerous awards and honors received by Professor Munk, including the National Medal of Science (1985), Kyoto Prize (1999), Prince Albert I Medal (2001) and the Explorers Club Medal (2014). He has also been elected a member of the National Academy of Science (1956), American Philosophical Society (1965), Royal Society of London, Foreign Fellow (1976), Russian Academy of Sciences (1994) and Ocean Elders (2017). On 3 July, he was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur by the French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Nicolas Hulot.

The IOC Executive Council took place between 3 and 6 July, and beyond the celebratory Roger Revelle Lecture, undertook major scientific and policy discussions and deliberated on important themes such as ocean science requirements for addressing climate uncertainty, ocean observations and data, early warning and preparedness against tsunamis, multiple stressors affecting marine life, and strategies and tools for science-based ocean planning.

Watch the Roger Revelle Memorial Lecture by Walter Munk:

Download Walter Munk's presentation

For more information, please contact:

Salvatore Aricò (s.arico(at)unesco.org)

<- Back to: All News IOC
Back to top