National Geographic recognizes new Southern Ocean, bringing global total to five

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Anyone who thought the world had four oceans will now have to think again, after the National Geographic Society announced it would recognize a new Southern Ocean in Antarctica, bringing the global total to five.

The National Geographic, a non-profit scientific and educational organization whose mapping standards are referenced by many atlases and cartographers, said the Southern Ocean consists of the waters surrounding Antarctica, out to 60-degrees south latitude.

National Geographic Society geographer Alex Tait said scientists have long known that the waters surrounding Antarctica form a “distinct ecological region defined, by ocean currents and temperatures”.

Tait told the Washington Post that the span of water is yet to be officially recognized as an ocean by the relevant international body: “But we thought it was important at this point to officially recognize it.”

“People look to us for geographic fact: How many continents, how many countries, how many oceans? Up until now, we’ve said four oceans,” Tait said, referring to the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific.

The US Board of Geographic Names, a federal body created in 1890 to establish and maintain “uniform geographic name usage” through the federal government, already recognizes the Southern ocean as occupying the same territory, but this is the first time the National Geographic has done so.

Attempts to ratify the boundaries and name of the Southern Ocean internationally have been thwarted.

The concept was proposed to the International Hydrographic Organization, which works to ensure the world’s seas, oceans and navigable waters are surveyed and charted, in 2000, but some of the IHO’s 94 members dissented. Despite that, Tait said it was important that the National Geographic christen the water area.

“We think it’s really important from an educational standpoint, as well as from a map-labeling standpoint, to bring attention to the Southern Ocean as a fifth ocean,” Tait told the Post.

“So when students learn about parts of the ocean world, they learn it’s an interconnected ocean, and they learn there’s these regions called oceans that are really important, and there’s a distinct one in the icy waters around Antarctica.”

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