National Geographic adds fifth ocean to world map

Katie Pulvermacher, News Editor

Since 1915, when National Geographic started printing world maps, people have been taught there are four world oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian and the Arctic. Suddenly, a fifth ocean is being acknowledged and written into maps.

“The Southern Ocean has long been recognized by scientists, but because there was never agreement internationally, we never officially recognized it,” says National Geographic Society Geographer Alex Tait.

Tait holds the position of “The Geographer” where he “leads geographic information system and locational data collection mapping initiatives and resources for National Geographic Labs.” He has a master’s degree in geography from UW-Madison.

Since 2016, Tait’s job has been to oversee changes and tweaks to every map that is published.

Debates on multitudes of platforms express people arguing whether or not they were taught that four or five oceans existed.

On a Tiktok post by National Geographic with 3.7 million views, comments reveal people have believed there have been five oceans their entire life. Comments range from “Was there not always five oceans?”, “So you’re just realizing that the southern ocean exists?” to “Check some old maps, it’s already there.”

Through this confusion, National Geographic still claims that it has been recognized, but this is the first time it has officially been recognized. Tait said this recognition is due to its ecological separation.

The new ocean’s location is the oceanic ring around Antarctica. The four other oceans are defined by the continents that fence them in, but the Southern Ocean is defined by a current.

According to CalTech GPS, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is “the longest and the strongest oceanic current on the Earth and is the primary means of inter-basin exchange.” The ACC is one of the most misunderstood components of global ocean circulation.

Scientists estimate that the ACC was established roughly 34 million years ago, when Antarctica separated from South America.

Human-driven climate change is warming water temperatures, which are then moving through the ACC and are slowly warming and therefore altering Antarctica and melting its ice sheets and shelves. It is unclear how much damage this has caused, but damage is definite.

Fortunately, as the Southern Ocean is not fenced in by continents, its bitter cold temperatures make home for many species not found anywhere else, despite the slow but forceful climate change.

National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala said the Southern Ocean “encompasses unique and fragile marine ecosystems that are home to wonderful marine life such as whales, penguins, and seals.”

By further recognizing the Southern Ocean, the National Geographic Society hopes it will promote its conservation of the fragile ecosystem.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Southern Ocean is still not recognized by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO). This intergovernmental organization tracks and charts global seas and oceans.

The Washington Post shares that the area boundaries of the Southern Ocean were proposed to the IHO in 2000, but not all IHO member countries were in agreement. Still, Tait says recognizing this water area around Antarctica is crucial to conserving the waters.

Through the official recognition of the Southern Ocean by National Geographic, education will change for the better. Even though many claim they have previously learned that the Southern Ocean exists, all school children will now learn about five oceans.

“I think one of the biggest impacts is through education,” Tait said. “Students learn information about the ocean world through what oceans you’re studying. If you don’t include the Southern Ocean then you don’t learn the specifics of it and how important it is.”

For further information on the Southern Ocean, check out National Geographic’s full article: