Southern Ocean facts for kids

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Earth's oceans
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Ice (white) in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica (light purple at bottom) grows and shrinks during the year

The Southern Ocean is the ocean around Antarctica. It was a new term in geography officially created in 2000. It means the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans around the continent of Antarctica out to sixty degrees south latitude. Some people call this ocean the Antarctic Ocean.

The total area is 20,327,000 km², and the coastline length is 17,968 km.


The Southern Ocean, geologically the youngest of the oceans, was formed when Antarctica and South America moved apart, opening the Drake Passage, roughly 30 million years ago. The separation of the continents allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

With a northern limit at 60°S, the Southern Ocean differs from the other oceans in that its largest boundary, the northern boundary, does not abut a landmass (as it did with the first edition of Limits of Oceans and Seas). Instead, the northern limit is with the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

One reason for considering it as a separate ocean stems from the fact that much of the water of the Southern Ocean differs from the water in the other oceans. Water gets transported around the Southern Ocean fairly rapidly because of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which circulates around Antarctica. Water in the Southern Ocean south of, for example, New Zealand, resembles the water in the Southern Ocean south of South America more closely than it resembles the water in the Pacific Ocean.

The Southern Ocean has typical depths of between 4,000 and 5,000 m (13,000 and 16,000 ft) over most of its extent with only limited areas of shallow water. The Southern Ocean's greatest depth of 7,236 m (23,740 ft) occurs at the southern end of the South Sandwich Trench, at 60°00'S, 024°W. The Antarctic continental shelf appears generally narrow and unusually deep, its edge lying at depths up to 800 m (2,600 ft), compared to a global mean of 133 m (436 ft).

Equinox to equinox in line with the sun's seasonal influence, the Antarctic ice pack fluctuates from an average minimum of 2.6 million square kilometres (1.0×10^6 sq mi) in March to about 18.8 million square kilometres (7.3×10^6 sq mi) in September, more than a sevenfold increase in area.

Sub-divisions of the Southern Ocean

Seas that are parts of the Southern Ocean

Sub-divisions of oceans are geographical features such as "seas", "straits", "bays", "channels", and "gulfs". There are many sub-divisions of the Southern Ocean defined in the never-approved 2002 draft fourth edition of the IHO publication Limits of Oceans and Seas. In clockwise order these include (with sector):

  • Weddell Sea (57°18'W – 12°16'E)
  • King Haakon VII Sea (20°W – 45°E)
  • Lazarev Sea (0° – 14°E)
  • Riiser-Larsen Sea (14° – 30°E)
  • Cosmonauts Sea (30° – 50°E)
  • Cooperation Sea (59°34' – 85°E)
  • Davis Sea (82° – 96°E)
  • Mawson Sea (95°45' – 113°E)
  • Dumont D'Urville Sea (140°E)
  • Somov Sea (150° – 170°E)
  • Ross Sea (166°E – 155°W)
  • Amundsen Sea (102°20′ – 126°W)
  • Bellingshausen Sea (57°18' – 102°20'W)
  • Part of the Drake Passage (54° – 68°W)
  • Bransfield Strait (54° – 62°W)
  • Part of the Scotia Sea (26°30' – 65°W)

A number of these such as the 2002 Russian-proposed "Cosmonauts Sea", "Cooperation Sea", and "Somov (mid-1950s Russian polar explorer) Sea" are not included in the 1953 IHO document which remains currently in force, because they received their names largely originated from 1962 onward. Leading geographic authorities and atlases do not use these latter three names, including the 2014 10th edition World Atlas from the United States' National Geographic Society and the 2014 12th edition of the British Times Atlas of the World, but Soviet and Russian-issued maps do.

Natural resources

Manganese nodule

The Southern Ocean probably contains large, and possibly giant, oil and gas fields on the continental margin. Placer deposits, accumulation of valuable minerals such as gold, formed by gravity separation during sedimentary processes are also expected to exist in the Southern Ocean.

Manganese nodules are expected to exist in the Southern Ocean. Manganese nodules are rock concretions on the sea bottom formed of concentric layers of iron and manganese hydroxides around a core. The core may be microscopically small and is sometimes completely transformed into manganese minerals by crystallization. Interest in the potential exploitation of polymetallic nodules generated a great deal of activity among prospective mining consortia in the 1960s and 1970s.

The icebergs that form each year around in the Southern Ocean hold enough fresh water to meet the needs of every person on Earth for several months. For several decades there have been proposals, none yet to be feasible or successful, to tow Southern Ocean icebergs to more arid northern regions (such as Australia) where they can be harvested.

Natural hazards

Burton Island, Atka, and Glacier push iceberg in McMurdo Sound (827218l)
An iceberg being pushed out of a shipping lane by (L to R) USS Burton Island (AGB-1), USS Atka (AGB-3), and USS Glacier (AGB-4) near McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 1965

Icebergs can occur at any time of year throughout the ocean. Some may have drafts up to several hundred meters; smaller icebergs, iceberg fragments and sea-ice (generally 0.5 to 1 m thick) also pose problems for ships. The deep continental shelf has a floor of glacial deposits varying widely over short distances.

Sailors know latitudes from 40 to 70 degrees south as the "Roaring Forties", "Furious Fifties" and "Shrieking Sixties" due to high winds and large waves that form as winds blow around the entire globe unimpeded by any land-mass. Icebergs, especially in May to October, make the area even more dangerous. The remoteness of the region makes sources of search and rescue scarce.

Physical oceanography

Antarctic Circumpolar Current
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is the strongest current system in the world oceans, linking the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific basins.

Antarctic Circumpolar Current and Antarctic Convergence

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current moves perpetually eastward – chasing and joining itself, and at 21,000 km (13,000 mi) in length – it comprises the world's longest ocean current, transporting 130 million cubic metres per second (4.6×10^9 cu ft/s) of water – 100 times the flow of all the world's rivers.

Several processes operate along the coast of Antarctica to produce, in the Southern Ocean, types of water masses not produced elsewhere in the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. One of these is the Antarctic Bottom Water, a very cold, highly saline, dense water that forms under sea ice.

Associated with the Circumpolar Current is the Antarctic Convergence encircling Antarctica, where cold northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic, Antarctic waters predominantly sink beneath subantarctic waters, while associated zones of mixing and upwelling create a zone very high in nutrients. These nurture high levels of phytoplankton with associated copepods and Antarctic krill, and resultant foodchains supporting fish, whales, seals, penguins, albatrosses and a wealth of other species.

The Antarctic Convergence is considered to be the best natural definition of the northern extent of the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic bottom water
Upwelling in the Southern Ocean


Large-scale upwelling is found in the Southern Ocean. Strong westerly (eastward) winds blow around Antarctica, driving a significant flow of water northwards. This is actually a type of coastal upwelling. Since there are no continents in a band of open latitudes between South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, some of this water is drawn up from great depths. In many numerical models and observational syntheses, the Southern Ocean upwelling represents the primary means by which deep dense water is brought to the surface. Shallower, wind-driven upwelling is also found off the west coasts of North and South America, northwest and southwest Africa, and southwest and southeast Australia, all associated with oceanic subtropical high pressure circulations.

Some models of the ocean circulation suggest that broad-scale upwelling occurs in the tropics, as pressure driven flows converge water toward the low latitudes where it is diffusively warmed from above. The required diffusion coefficients, however, appear to be larger than are observed in the real ocean. Nonetheless, some diffusive upwelling does probably occur.

Antarctic frontal-system hg
Location of the Southern Ocean gyres.

Ross and Weddell Gyres

The Ross Gyre and Weddell Gyre are two gyres that exist within the Southern Ocean. The gyres are located in the Ross Sea and Weddell Sea respectively, and both rotate clockwise. The gyres are formed by interactions between the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Antarctic Continental Shelf.

Sea ice has been noted to persist in the central area of the Ross Gyre. There is some evidence that global warming has resulted in some decrease of the salinity of the waters of the Ross Gyre since the 1950s.

Due to the Coriolis effect acting to the left in the Southern Hemisphere and the resulting Ekman transport away from the centres of the Weddell Gyre, these regions are very productive due to upwelling of cold, nutrient rich water.


Sea temperatures vary from about −2 to 10 °C (28 to 50 °F). Cyclonic storms travel eastward around the continent and frequently become intense because of the temperature contrast between ice and open ocean. The ocean-area from about latitude 40 south to the Antarctic Circle has the strongest average winds found anywhere on Earth. In winter the ocean freezes outward to 65 degrees south latitude in the Pacific sector and 55 degrees south latitude in the Atlantic sector, lowering surface temperatures well below 0 degrees Celsius. At some coastal points, however, persistent intense drainage winds from the interior keep the shoreline ice-free throughout the winter.

Clouds over Southern Ocean with Continent labels.


Killer Whale Tipe B
Orca (Orcinus orca) hunting a Weddell seal in the Southern Ocean.


A variety of marine animals exist and rely, directly or indirectly, on the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Antarctic sea life includes penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids and fur seals. The emperor penguin is the only penguin that breeds during the winter in Antarctica, while the Adélie penguin breeds farther south than any other penguin. The rockhopper penguin has distinctive feathers around the eyes, giving the appearance of elaborate eyelashes. King penguins, chinstrap penguins, and gentoo penguins also breed in the Antarctic.

The Antarctic fur seal was very heavily hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for its pelt by sealers from the United States and the United Kingdom. The Weddell seal, a "true seal", is named after Sir James Weddell, commander of British sealing expeditions in the Weddell Sea. Antarctic krill, which congregates in large schools, is the keystone species of the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean, and is an important food organism for whales, seals, leopard seals, fur seals, squid, icefish, penguins, albatrosses and many other birds.

The benthic communities of the seafloor are diverse and dense, with up to 155,000 animals found in 1 square metre (10.8 sq ft). As the seafloor environment is very similar all around the Antarctic, hundreds of species can be found all the way around the mainland, which is a uniquely wide distribution for such a large community. Deep-sea gigantism is common among these animals.

A census of sea life carried out during the International Polar Year and which involved some 500 researchers was released in 2010. The research is part of the global Census of Marine Life (CoML) and has disclosed some remarkable findings. More than 235 marine organisms live in both polar regions, having bridged the gap of 12,000 km (7,456 mi). Large animals such as some cetaceans and birds make the round trip annually. More surprising are small forms of life such as mudworms, sea cucumbers and free-swimming snails found in both polar oceans. Various factors may aid in their distribution – fairly uniform temperatures of the deep ocean at the poles and the equator which differ by no more than 5 °C, and the major current systems or marine conveyor belt which transport egg and larva stages.

Wonder albat
A wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) on South Georgia


The rocky shores of mainland Antarctica and its offshore islands provide nesting space for over 100 million birds every spring. These nesters include species of albatrosses, petrels, skuas, gulls and terns. The insectivorous South Georgia pipit is endemic to South Georgia and some smaller surrounding islands. Freshwater ducks inhabit South Georgia and the Kerguelen Islands.

The flightless penguins are all located in the Southern Hemisphere, with the greatest concentration located on and around Antarctica. Four of the 18 penguin species live and breed on the mainland and its close offshore islands. Another four species live on the subantarctic islands. Emperor penguins have four overlapping layers of feathers, keeping them warm. They are the only Antarctic animal to breed during the winter.


There are relatively few fish species in few families in the Southern Ocean. The most species-rich family are the snailfish (Liparidae), followed by the cod icefish (Nototheniidae) and eelpout (Zoarcidae). Together the snailfish, eelpouts and notothenioids (which includes cod icefish and several other families) account for almost 910 of the more than 320 described fish species of the Southern Ocean (tens of undescribed species also occur in the region, especially among the snailfish). Southern Ocean snailfish are generally found in deep waters, while the icefish also occur in shallower waters.


Fish of the Notothenioidei suborder, such as this young icefish, are mostly restricted to the Antarctic and Subantarctic

Cod icefish (Nototheniidae), as well as several other families, are part of the Notothenioidei suborder, collectively sometimes referred to as icefish. The suborder contains many species with antifreeze proteins in their blood and tissue, allowing them to live in water that is around or slightly below 0 °C (32 °F). Antifreeze proteins are also known from Southern Ocean snailfish.

The crocodile icefish (family Channichthyidae), also known as white-blooded fish, are only found in the Southern Ocean. They lack hemoglobin in their blood, resulting in their blood being colourless. One Channichthyidae species, the mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari), was once the most common fish in coastal waters less than 400 metres (1,312 ft) deep, but was overfished in the 1970s and 1980s. Schools of icefish spend the day at the seafloor and the night higher in the water column eating plankton and smaller fish.

There are two species from the genus Dissostichus, the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) and the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides). These two species live on the seafloor 100–3,000 metres (328–9,843 ft) deep, and can grow to around 2 metres (7 ft) long weighing up to 100 kilograms (220 lb), living up to 45 years. The Antarctic toothfish lives close to the Antarctic mainland, whereas the Patagonian toothfish lives in the relatively warmer subantarctic waters. Toothfish are commercially fished, and overfishing has reduced toothfish populations.

Another abundant fish group is the genus Notothenia, which like the Antarctic toothfish have antifreeze in their bodies.

An unusual species of icefish is the Antarctic silverfish (Pleuragramma antarcticum), which is the only truly pelagic fish in the waters near Antarctica.

Phoque de Weddell - Weddell Seal
Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) are the most southerly of Antarctic mammals.


Seven pinniped species inhabit Antarctica. The largest, the elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), can reach up to 4,000 kilograms (8,818 lb), while females of the smallest, the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella), reach only 150 kilograms (331 lb). These two species live north of the sea ice, and breed in harems on beaches. The other four species can live on the sea ice. Crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophagus) and Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) form breeding colonies, whereas leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) and Ross seals (Ommatophoca rossii) live solitary lives. Although these species hunt underwater, they breed on land or ice and spend a great deal of time there, as they have no terrestrial predators.

The four species that inhabit sea ice are thought to make up 50% of the total biomass of the world's seals. Crabeater seals have a population of around 15 million, making them one of the most numerous large animals on the planet. The New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri), one of the rarest and most localised pinnipeds, breeds almost exclusively on the subantarctic Auckland Islands, although historically it had a wider range. Out of all permanent mammalian residents, the Weddell seals live the furthest south.

There are 10 cetacean species found in the Southern Ocean; six baleen whales, and four toothed whales. The largest of these, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), grows to 24 metres (79 ft) long weighing 84 tonnes. Many of these species are migratory, and travel to tropical waters during the Antarctic winter.

Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba)
Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are a keystone species of the food web.



Five species of krill, small free-swimming crustaceans, have been found in the Southern Ocean. The Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) is one of the most abundant animal species on earth, with a biomass of around 500 million tonnes. Each individual is 6 centimetres (2.4 in) long and weighs over 1 gram (0.035 oz). The swarms that form can stretch for kilometres, with up to 30,000 individuals per 1 cubic metre (35 cu ft), turning the water red. Swarms usually remain in deep water during the day, ascending during the night to feed on plankton. Many larger animals depend on krill for their own survival. During the winter when food is scarce, adult Antarctic krill can revert to a smaller juvenile stage, using their own body as nutrition.

Many benthic crustaceans have a non-seasonal breeding cycle, and some raise their young in a brood pouch. Glyptonotus antarcticus is an unusually large benthic isopod, reaching 20 centimetres (8 in) in length weighing 70 grams (2.47 oz). Amphipods are abundant in soft sediments, eating a range of items, from algae to other animals. The amphipods are highly diverse with more than 600 recognized species found south of the Antarctic Convergence and there are indications that many undescribed species remain. Among these are several "giants", such as the iconic epimeriids that are up to 8 cm (3.1 in) long.

Slow moving sea spiders are common, sometimes growing as large as a human hand. They feed on the corals, sponges, and bryozoans that litter the seabed.

Onykia ingens 384 mm ML
A female warty squid (Moroteuthis ingens)


Many aquatic molluscs are present in Antarctica. Bivalves such as Adamussium colbecki move around on the seafloor, while others such as Laternula elliptica live in burrows filtering the water above. There are around 70 cephalopod species in the Southern Ocean, the largest of which is the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), which at up to 14 metres (46 ft) is among the largest invertebrate in the world. Squid makes up most of the diet of some animals, such as grey-headed albatrosses and sperm whales, and the warty squid (Moroteuthis ingens) is one of the subantarctic's most preyed upon species by vertebrates.

The sea urchin genus Abatus burrow through the sediment eating the nutrients they find in it. Two species of salps are common in Antarctic waters, Salpa thompsoni and Ihlea racovitzai. Salpa thompsoni is found in ice-free areas, whereas Ihlea racovitzai is found in the high latitude areas near ice. Due to their low nutritional value, they are normally only eaten by fish, with larger animals such as birds and marine mammals only eating them when other food is scarce.

Antarctic sponges are long lived, and sensitive to environmental changes due to the specificity of the symbiotic microbial communities within them. As a result, they function as indicators of environmental health.

Images for kids

Southern Ocean Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.