June 10, 2021
Corrections & clarifications: A prior version of this story misstated the name of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For the first time in over a century, there’s a new ocean on the map.
That’s according to National Geographic, which Tuesday announced that it is officially recognizing the body of water surrounding the Antarctic as the Southern Ocean, making it the fifth ocean alongside the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.
“The Southern Ocean has long been recognized by scientists, but because there was never agreement internationally, we never officially recognized it,” National Geographic Society Geographer Alex Tait told the magazine.
The new ocean extends in a ring from Antarctica’s coastline to 60 degrees south latitude, according to National Geographic, and differentiates from other oceans in its designation by current, not by continent. The area is slightly bigger than twice the size of the U.S., the Central Intelligence Agency website says.
The society generally follows the International Hydrographic Organization names, and though the IHO recognized the Southern Ocean in its 1937 guidelines, it repealed the designation in 1953 and has yet to reinstate it.
Yet the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has used the Southern Ocean name since 1999, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognized it in February.
Why the change now? It’s due to the conservation efforts surrounding the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean “encompasses unique and fragile marine ecosystems that are home to wonderful marine life such as whales, penguins, and seals,” National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala told the magazine.
Thousands of species live in the Southern Ocean and nowhere else, and impacts of fishing on the region have been felt for decades, reported the magazine.
And scientists are currently voicing concern about how climate change is altering the Southern Ocean. Last month, the world’s largest iceberg, which was more than three times the size of Los Angeles, broke off from Antarctica. In February, another iceberg larger than New York City broke off.
The current that has led to its recognition, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, transports the most water of any current and drives a global circulation system that transports heat around the planet, according to National Geographic.
The biggest impact from the change will be on education, Tait told the magazine.
“Students learn information about the ocean world through what oceans you’re studying,” he said. “If you don’t include the Southern Ocean then you don’t learn the specifics of it and how important it is.”