An Ocean right under our noses
Antarctica’s surrounding body of water is unlike any other. Anyone who has been will struggle to articulate what it is about the place that fascinates them, but they will all agree that the glaciers are bluer, the air is colder, the mountains are more intimidating, and the landscapes are more intriguing than anywhere else. We have normally been acquainted with four oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. However, there is a fifth called ‘the Southern Ocean’ surrounding the Antarctic.
Many scientists have recognized the Southern Ocean, but there has never been international agreement on it. Geographers have long questioned whether the waters surrounding Antarctica were distinct enough to deserve their own name. While some debated that they were merely cold, southern extensions of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current
The Southern Ocean is defined by a current, unlike the other oceans, defined by the landmass surrounding them. According to scientists, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) was formed around 34 million years ago, when Antarctica split from South America. This allowed for unrestricted water movement around the Earth’s core. The ACC flows around Antarctica from west to east in a large shifting zone largely centered at 60 degrees south latitude. This line is presently designated as the Southern Ocean’s northern limit. The waters inside the ACC are colder and less salty than the ocean waters to the north.
Scientists are now investigating the effects of human-caused climate change on the Southern Ocean. Scientists have discovered that ocean water passing through the ACC is warming, but it’s unclear how much this affects Antarctica. Where the ACC is closer to land, the continent’s ice sheets and shelves have melted at a faster rate.
An Ecological Environment Like No Other
The Southern Oceans have a distinct ecological environment. For the time being, the ACC helps keep Antarctica cold and the Southern Ocean ecologically different by fencing in the icy southern waters. Thousands of species can only be found there. According to National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala, the Southern Ocean “encompasses unique and endangered marine habitats that are home to spectacular marine animals such as whales, penguins, and seals.”
Furthermore, the Southern Ocean has ecological consequences in other parts of the world. For example, humpback whales feed on krill off Antarctica before migrating North to winter in different South and Central American environments. Seabirds migrate in and out as well. Many countries around the world agree that these certain places should be protected from industrial fishing.
The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) is generally the one followed for tracking marine names. The IHO collaborates with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names to standardize names globally, although not being directly responsible for determining them. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) recognized the Southern Ocean in its 1937 recommendations, but it was revoked in 1953 due to a dispute. Since then, it has debated the issue but has failed to get unanimous approval from its members to reintroduce the Southern Ocean.
Since 1999, the name has been used by the United States Board on Geographic Names. The Southern Ocean was officially acknowledged as distinct by the US’s National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in February of this year.
While Geography books around the globe might not give it the status, it deserves. The Southern ocean’s mesmerizing features and ecology calls for a distinct recognition amongst its sister oceans.