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Most of us discovered the world’s oceans in elementary school. There is the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian and the Arctic.
Now there is a drastic change to come.
Thanks to National Geographic, you will soon see a fifth ocean on your maps. It now officially recognizes the Southern Ocean, the waters swirling around Antarctica, marking the first time the organization has made such a change since it began charting more than a century ago.
On the occasion of World Oceans Day earlier this week, National Geographic announced the distinction, which many scientists and researchers have unofficially recognized for decades.
“Traditionally, there have been the four [oceans] defined primarily by land masses, ”National Geographic Society geographer Alex Tait told NPR All things Considered. “We think it’s important to add this fifth ocean region because it’s so unique and because we want to bring attention to all areas of the ocean.”
National Geographic produced maps, atlases and globes since 1915. But this is the first time they have drawn up a new map that will reshape the oceans.
This decision catches up with the recognition of the Southern Ocean by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1999, when it got approval from the US Board on Geographic Names.
The change has made waves for experts already familiar with the region. For example, he surprised Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, out of step.
“To be completely honest with you, I was rather surprised because I had always considered the Southern Ocean to be its own ocean,” said Brooks. “I think most of the scientists who work there really understand how the Southern Ocean is its own thing.”
But the South is special, according to Brooks, who has spent more than 15 years of his career studying Antarctica. It is defined by the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a critical flow that she says helps regulate the Earth’s climate.
Brooks says she considers the Southern Ocean to be “the lungs” or “the heart”. The ocean “pumps water to all of the world’s oceans,” she says.
Tait and Brooks both hope this new recognition will raise awareness of an often-forgotten region.
“Antarctica is so far away that most people don’t think about it on a daily basis. They don’t see how important it is to the survival of us all,” says Brooks.