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Coming Soon To An Atlas Near You: A Fifth Ocean

How many oceans are there? It's National Geographic official now: There are five.
Alexander Gerst
ESA via Getty Images
How many oceans are there? It's National Geographic official now: There are five.

Most of us learned about the world's oceans in elementary school. There's the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian and the Arctic.

Now, there's a sea change ahead.

Thanks to National Geographic, you'll soon see a fifth ocean on your maps. It's now officially recognizing the Southern Ocean, the waters swirling around Antarctica, marking the first time the organization has made such a change since it started drawing up maps over a century ago.

On World Ocean's Day earlier this week, National Geographic announced the distinction, which many scientists and researchers have unofficially acknowledged for decades.

"Traditionally, there have been the four [oceans] defined primarily by land masses," Alex Tait, National Geographic Society geographer, tells NPR's 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 has produced maps, atlases and globes since 1915. But this is the first time they're drawing up a new map that will recast the oceans.

The move catches up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognition of the Southern Ocean in 1999, when it earned approval from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The change made waves for experts already familiar with the area. For instance, it caught Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, off-kilter.

"To be completely honest with you, I was rather surprised because I had always thought of the Southern Ocean as its own ocean," says Brooks. "I think most of the scientists who work down there really understand how the Southern Ocean is its own thing."

But the Southern is special, according to Brooks, who's spent more than 15 years of her career studying the Antarctic. It's defined by the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a critical flow that she says helps regulate the Earth's climate.

Brooks says she thinks about the Southern Ocean as "lungs" or "the heart." The ocean is "pumping water throughout the world's oceans," she says.

Both Tait and Brooks hope that this new recognition will create more awareness for a region that's often forgotten.

"Antarctica is so far away that most people don't think about it on a day to day basis. They're not seeing how important it is to literally all of our survival," says Brooks.

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Karen Zamora
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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