Yes and no! To scientists, the broad ocean region surrounding Antarctica is the Southern Ocean. It roughly includes all ocean regions south of about 30 degrees South latitude, which is more or less where the southern tip of Africa is, down to the coast of Antarctica. It includes the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), the world’s strongest current which circulates around Antarctica in a clockwise fashion.
We oceanographers define the Southern Ocean by its physical characteristics but government entities define oceans differently. In 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization, which oversees the charting of the world’s oceans, defined the Southern Ocean as all the ocean regions found south of 60 degrees South, which is more or less where sea ice is found, but has yet to endorse that definition because of disagreement whether that is the best way to define it. There’s been little progress since. That definition does not include most of the ACC or the Drake Passage, which is the narrow space between South America and Antarctica through which the ACC squeezes. Both the ACC and Drake Passage are crucial to the dynamics of the Southern Ocean. There is also an agreement called the International Antarctic Treaty that sets aside all of the Southern Ocean south of 60 degrees South and Antarctica itself for cooperative scientific investigation.
So, officially the jury is still out whether there really is a Southern Ocean but we scientists have our own working definition that guides our research.
- Lynne Talley, physical oceanographer, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, author of Descriptive Physical Oceanography, a textbook considered the standard for introductory physical oceanography courses
Do you have a science question of your own? Email it to explorations now's "Voyager" at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it. Those whose questions are answered receive a selection of Scripps Oceanography swag as a thank-you!
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.