The Mystery of the Antarctic Ocean
The oceans are one of the most important features of our planet, covering over 70% of its surface. However, it may come as a surprise to many that there is still debate surrounding the number of oceans that exist. One of the most contested issues in oceanography is whether the Antarctic Ocean should be considered a distinct ocean or not.
Defining an Ocean: What Makes an Ocean?
An ocean is a large body of saltwater that covers a significant portion of the Earth’s surface. Oceans are typically divided into regions based on their physical and biological characteristics, such as temperature, salinity, and marine life. The oceanic regions are then further subdivided into smaller areas known as basins or seas. The classification of oceans is primarily based on the geography and oceanography of the region, as well as historical and cultural factors.
The Five Oceans: A Brief Overview
Traditionally, there have been five oceans recognized by most people: the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. However, the Southern Ocean is not universally accepted and its status as a distinct ocean has been the subject of much debate in the scientific community.
The Southern Ocean: History and Geography
The Southern Ocean is a vast body of water that surrounds Antarctica, stretching between 60 and 70 degrees south latitude. It is the world’s smallest ocean, covering an area of approximately 20 million square kilometers, making up 5.5% of the Earth’s surface. It was first officially recognized as a distinct ocean by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) in 2000.
Why is the Southern Ocean Controversial?
The controversy surrounding the Southern Ocean arises from the fact that it does not conform to the traditional definition of an ocean. The traditional definition states that an ocean should be a continuous and unbroken body of water that covers at least one-third of the Earth’s surface and is bounded by the continents.
The IHO’s Role in Defining Oceans
The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) is the primary organization responsible for the definition and delimitation of the world’s oceans and their subdivisions. The IHO is a non-governmental organization that works with governments around the world to provide accurate and up-to-date nautical charts and publications.
The IHO’s Decision on the Southern Ocean
In 2000, the IHO officially recognized the Southern Ocean as a distinct ocean, making it the fifth ocean in the world. The decision was based on the region’s unique oceanographic and biological characteristics, including its distinctive currents, winds, and marine life.
Oceanography of the Antarctic Region
The Antarctic region is one of the most unique and challenging environments on the planet. The ocean surrounding Antarctica is characterized by strong winds, intense currents, and extremely cold temperatures. The region is also home to a diverse array of marine life, including penguins, seals, whales, and many species of fish and krill.
Unique Features of the Southern Ocean
One of the most unique features of the Southern Ocean is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which flows continuously eastward around Antarctica, connecting all three major ocean basins. The ACC is the largest ocean current in the world and plays a critical role in global climate and ocean circulation.
Environmental Importance of the Southern Ocean
The Southern Ocean is a critical component of the global climate system and a key area for scientific research. It is also a vital habitat for many species of marine life, including several that are threatened or endangered. The region faces many environmental challenges, including climate change, overfishing, and pollution.
Conclusion: The Southern Ocean Debate Continues
In conclusion, the debate over the status of the Southern Ocean as a distinct ocean is far from settled. While the IHO has recognized it as a distinct ocean, there are still many scientists and experts who disagree with this classification. Regardless of its official designation, the Southern Ocean remains a unique and important area of the planet, worthy of further study and protection.
References and Further Reading
- International Hydrographic Organization. (2021). Limits of Oceans and Seas.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2021). Southern Ocean. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/southern-ocean.html
- Turner, J., Bindschadler, R., Convey, P., di Prisco, G., Fahrbach, E., Gutt, J., Hodgson, D., Mayewski, P., and Summerhayes, C. (2009). Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment: An Update. Polar Record, 45(235), 237-259.