Aladdin and Jasmine sang about a whole new world as they floated around on a magic carpet in their Disney movie. While they were merely pointing out a new perspective of the world from having found each other, I, on the other hand am surveying a physical world map from my laptop and finding it vastly different than what I’ve known all my life. Surprise! An entirely new ocean, the Southern Ocean, has been recognized.
Remembering back to my school days, I was taught there were four oceans in the world–the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian, and the Arctic. Of course, I also learned there were nine planets including Pluto, and we see what happened with that information. Bye, bye, Pluto! So, I am now having to wrap my head around the recognition of only 8 planets but 5 oceans. Yes, the Southern Ocean has joined the cast of world oceans.
Where exactly is this “new” ocean? It begins at Antarctica’s coast and stretches northward. Nevertheless, disagreement exists as to how far north it extends. The prevailing thought is that its northern boundary is 60 degrees south latitude. Well, that certainly clears up the location for me–not!
The Southern Ocean is the second smallest of the now five world oceans. “Smallest,” of course, is a relative term. In my book, anything covering 7.8 million square miles is hardly “small.” Since it is difficult for me to mentally comprehend large numbers, let’s put the Southern Ocean’s size into perspective. It’s slightly bigger than twice the size of the United States. How could we have possibly missed recognizing such an ocean?
Actually, the Southern Ocean didn’t just pop up out of nowhere to make a claim to being the fifth ocean in the world. It was previously called the Antarctic Ocean and has long been recognized by scientists as an ocean. In fact, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has used the name Southern Ocean since 1999.
So, why has no official recognition been given until now? The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), the entity that standardizes sea mapping and official maps, hasn’t given its seal of approval to a 2000 proposal to add the Southern Ocean to the world map. Without international agreement, the Southern Ocean had never been officially recognized. But on World Ocean Day (how did I miss that?), June 8th, the National Geographic Society celebrated by announcing it was recognizing a fifth ocean.
Not only is the Southern Ocean the most recently recognized ocean, but it is also geologically the youngest of all the oceans. It was formed a mere 34 million years ago when South America and Antarctica moved apart. While these continents may have separated, the Southern Ocean remained neighborly. It touches three of the remaining four oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans.
One of the biggest arguments for declaring this body of water an ocean is that the waters around Antarctica have characteristics different from other oceans. In particular, the Southern Ocean includes a unique current pattern known as the ACC (no relation to the college football conference) or Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The ACC makes the water around Antarctica colder and slightly less salty than more northern bodies of water. The Southern Ocean’s average sea temperature is a brisk 28 degrees Fahrenheit to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The ACC drives a global circulation system that transports heat around our planet. Seems strange to me that the ocean with the coldest water is instrumental is moving heat around the Earth. The current moves continuously eastward and comprises the world’s longest and strongest current system in the world’s oceans. In fact, it is the only global current.
Sadly, the Southern Ocean is one of the regions where rapid climate change is most visibly taking place due to increasing ocean temperatures. What so visible? ICEBERGS!! Why just last month the world’s largest iceberg (think more than three times the size of Los Angeles) broke off from Antarctica. Icebergs can occur any time during the year in the Southern Ocean. So, there can be “Ice, ice, baby” even during the height of summer.
Interestingly, the icebergs floating around in the salty Southern Ocean water are comprised of fresh water. The icebergs that form there each year hold enough fresh water to meet the needs of all people on Earth for several months. As a result, proposals have been made for several decades to tow icebergs north to places like Australia where the fresh water could be harvested for use. Can you imagine the size of the ship which would be needed to tow that iceberg multi-times the size of L.A.?
Not only are icebergs gargantuan in the Southern Ocean but so is the Colossal Squid, the largest type of squid existing. How big is this squid? Imagine a creature weighing up to 1,500 pounds and extending some 33 feet. Yeah, I don’t want to imagine that either. The diversity of species in the Southern Ocean includes a variety of penguins, seals, fish, and birds. Also found in the Southern Ocean are thousands of species which live there and nowhere else.
As unsettling as it is to have our concept of the world and how it appears on a map altered, change is inevitable in life. And change is a good thing when the revision makes what we believe and what we see accurately reflect the world around us. We’ve had our fill of fake news in recent months. We sure don’t want to have to deal with fake maps, do we?
Had you ever heard about the Southern Ocean? How do you feel about altering world maps to identify this “new” ocean? Is the creation of large icebergs formed when land breaks off from Antarctica due to rising temperatures compelling evidence of climate change to you?