American oceanographer Walter Munk has been awarded this year's Craaford Prize in Geophysics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Munk is honoured "for his pioneering and fundamental contributions to our understanding of ocean circulation, tides and waves, and their role in the Earth´s dynamics".

The celebrated American researcher is perhaps best known for his holistic approach to ocean science, in particular his grasp of the tide's significance on a number of scales.

"Walter is without question the scientist who has contributed more than anyone else to oceanography over the past 50 years," says Leif Anderson, a marine chemist at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who was a member of the prize-awarding panel.

The King and Queen of Sweden will present Munk with a cheque for 4 million Swedish Krona, (about $550,000), at a ceremony in Stockholm in May.

Ex-banker

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1917, Walter Munk and his family moved to New York State in 1932 as his family envisioned a career in banking for their promising son.

Munk soon realized, however, that his real passion was the natural sciences, so he enrolled at California Institute of Technology where he obtained a BSc in physics in 1939.

After a brief spell with the US Army as a private, Munk was excused from action to conduct military research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California. He remained at the institution after the Second World War and completed his PhD in oceanography in 1947 and was awarded a professorship in 1954.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Munk went on to revolutionize marine science by rigorously applying mathematics to the world's oceans to link them with the wider global dynamics. One example is his work on mixing processes in the oceans, which helped to improve our picture of how heat is distributed in the global energy balance.

"He provided us with a theoretical basis to explaining ocean circulation which will be invaluable as climate models become more sophisticated," says Anderson.

Surfin' USA

Munk is also hailed by surfing communities around the globe, which are grateful for the advances in tide and wave forecasting enabled by the oceanographer's research. Erik Huss, a spokesperson for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, describes Munk as a "legendary figure" amongst surfers who have honoured him with gifts.

Despite his 93 years, Munk is apparently still an active figure in the research community having co-authored no fewer than four research articles last year.

The Crafoord Prize in astronomy and mathematics, biosciences, geosciences or polyarthritis research is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences annually according to a rotating scheme.

The prize money comes courtesy of the Anna-Greta and Holger Crafoord´s Fund which was set up in 1980. Holger, who died in 1982, had been a successful Swedish industrialist before suffering badly from rheumatoid arthritis in later life.