National Geographic announced Tuesday that it is officially recognizing the body of water surrounding the Antarctic as the Earth’s fifth ocean: the Southern Ocean.
The change marks the first time in over a century that the organization has redrawn the world’s oceanic maps, which have historically only included four: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans.
“The Southern Ocean has long been recognized by scientists, but because there was never agreement internationally, we never officially recognized it,” National Geographic Society geographer Alex Tait told the magazine.
“It’s sort of geographic nerdiness in some ways,” Tait said. “We’ve always labeled it, but we labeled it slightly differently [than other oceans]. This change was taking the last step and saying we want to recognize it because of its ecological separation.”
The Southern Ocean stretches from Antarctica’s coastline to 60 degrees south latitude, excluding the Drake Passage and the Scotia Sea, according to the National Geographic. The newest body of water makes it the second-smallest, after the Arctic.
The waters encircling the southern continent have distinct ecological characteristics, including its unique current patterns better known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, or ACC, according to the magazine.
The ACC makes the waters around Antarctica colder and slightly less salty than those in the north, which helps transport heat around the world and store carbon in the deep ocean — all of which have a crucial impact on the planet, National Geographic reported.
The change broke from guidance outlined by the International Hydrographic Organization, which standardizes sea mapping and official names.
The organization has yet to agree to a proposal that was submitted in 2000 to add the Southern Ocean to the world map, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, most countries, including the U.S., recognize the body of water as distinct.
Tait told National Geographic that he hopes the organization’s new policy will have a huge impact on education.
“Students learn information about the ocean world through what oceans you’re studying,” he said. “If you don’t include the Southern Ocean then you don’t learn the specifics of it and how important it is.”