Newly designated ocean shows science at work | Editorials


As much as political leaders and experts like to cite scientific consensus as an indisputable fact, the consensus can change. New classification schemes may emerge. New information can undermine even the most firmly held beliefs, because the scientific method is impartial against politics or favoritism. This flexibility and willingness to learn are the key to human discovery and knowledge.

Yet it can be shocking when basic truths seem to suddenly change. Things like the number of planets or, say, the number of oceans on Earth.

The National Geographic Society announced in June that it would include a fifth ocean in its maps of Earth’s waters, recognizing the Southern Ocean as a separate body.

Distinguished by the violent arctic circumpolar current flowing eastward, this ocean stretches from the coast of Antarctica at 60 degrees south latitude. The scientific community, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has recognized the existence of the Fifth Ocean since 1999, but there were no clearly defined boundaries, and this recognition has not yet been made public.

Now, 22 years later, recognition of the Southern Ocean by one of the world’s leading mapping authorities is likely to start pushing this reclassification into public consciousness, especially as many schools and teachers rely on it. National Geographic for its free online geography education materials. .

This isn’t the first time in recent decades that Americans have woken up to find that something they did know was suddenly not true. Adults above a certain age have learned that there are nine celestial masses orbiting our sun, because Pluto was discovered in 1930 and considered the ninth.

Astronomers later categorized Pluto as a dwarf planet, reducing the number of planets in the solar system to eight. There was a public outcry over Pluto’s “demotion”, but the decision stuck.

Classification systems are important. The “dwarf planet” does not seem as important as an official planet. And on the other end of the spectrum, reshaping the water around Antarctica like the Southern Ocean could raise awareness of the region, which contains some of the hottest spaces on the planet as the climate changes and plays a key role in global weather conditions. .

The newly created Southern Ocean should remind us that knowledge evolves, that skepticism and the constant questioning about how people think about their world is good, that flexibility in assimilating new information is important, and that the curiosity is essential.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | PA

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