- The society announced their new mapping policy yesterday on World Ocean Day
- Unlike its peers, the Southern Ocean has been defined by the current around it
- Other oceans like the Atlantic are defined by the continents that bound them
- The status of the Southern Ocean remains a contested issue on the world stage
- National Geographic hopes its change will encourage conservation of the oceanCartographers at the National Geographic have finally recognised Antarctica's Southern Ocean on their maps, bringing their count of Earth's oceans to five.
The society — which has been releasing maps of the world since 1915 — publicly announced their new policy yesterday, to coincide with World Ocean Day.
National Geographic have defined the ocean as being bound by the current that flows around Antarctica — with a northernmost reach up to the 60th parallel south.
The Southern Ocean joins the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific on their charts, although the Antarctica-encircling body's status remains internationally contested.
Nevertheless, National Geographic hope their revised maps will help people think differently about the Southern Ocean, thereby encouraging its conservation.
'The Southern Ocean has long been recognized by scientists,' explained National Geographic Society geographer Alex Tait in the announcement.
'But because there was never agreement internationally, we never officially recognized it. It’s sort of geographic nerdiness in some ways,' he added.
'We’ve always labelled it, but we labelled it slightly differently [than the other oceans]. This change was taking the last step and saying we want to recognize it because of its ecological separation.'The National Geographic said that Mr Tait — who oversees changes to all the maps they publish — and their map policy committee have been debating the merits of acknowledging the Southern Ocean as a body in its own right for years now.
Previously, they had categorised the waters around Antarctica as merely cold, southern extensions of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
However, they noted, scientists and members of the press have been increasingly making use of and popularising the term 'Southern Ocean.'
The society's decision to now recognise it stems from an acknowledgement of the distinct and rapid Antarctic Circumpolar Current that encircles the southernmost continent.
They also factored in the unique marine ecosystem found in the Southern Ocean's cold waters.
'While there is but one interconnected ocean, bravo to National Geographic for officially recognizing the body of water surrounding Antarctica as the Southern Ocean,' said Marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer at Large Sylvia Earle.
'Rimmed by the formidably swift Antarctic Circumpolar Current, it is the only ocean to touch three others and to completely embrace a continent rather than being embraced by them.'
Before now, the National Geographic had broadly followed the precedents set by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) when it came down to the labelling of marine features like oceans.
The IHO — which works in tandem with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names to standardise designations — did recognise the Southern Ocean as part of its 1937 guidelines, but repealed this in 1953, citing controversy.
The organisation's ongoing deliberations on the matter have yet to reach a definite consensus form its members in favour of reinstating the name.
In contract, the US Board on Geographic Names has recognised the 'Southern Ocean' since 1999, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also only adopted the label in the February of this year.
Mr Tait said that he hopes National Geographic's new policy regarding the Southern Ocean will influence how children using maps in schools will learn to see the world.
'I think one of the biggest impacts is through education. 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,' he concluded.