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Deborah Trafford recalls nearly a decade ago hearing her daughter talk about a body of water dubbed the "Southern Ocean."

Trafford had never heard of such a thing. "I figured she had it wrong," she said.

Years later, Trafford, who now teaches ninth-grade physics at McCluer North High School, realized her daughter knew what she was talking about after all. It was just that news of the naming of a fifth ocean hadn't reached all corners of the world and was treated skeptically in some others.

Last spring, while taking a graduate-level course about weather, Trafford finally learned about the Southern Ocean — identified and named in 2000 by arguably the world's leading authority on oceans, the International Hydrographic Organization, of which the United States is a member.

But while the name appears on some maps and has been accepted by the American Meteorological Society and other authorities in science and social studies, its name and existence haven't necessarily worked their way into teacher training, lesson plans, textbooks and after-school conversations with Mom and Dad.

Consequently, many teachers, students and parents have never heard of it.

"It's the newest ocean," said Ann Kelly, a teacher at Bishop DuBourg High School who, as a member of the American Meteorological Society, oversees a graduate-level course on oceanography for teachers. Kelly said most of the teachers who take the courses come into class having never heard of the Southern Ocean. "Most people are like, 'Oh, I didn't know they called it that,'" she said.

What the International Hydrographic Organization defines as the Southern Ocean completely surrounds Antarctica and extends upward to 60 degrees south latitude in an area where the cold waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current — an ocean current that flows from west to east around Antarctica — meet the warmer waters of the north. While debate continues over whether the Earth has four or five oceans, promoters of the latter say the Southern Ocean is the fourth-largest of the five (smaller than the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian, but larger than the Arctic).

"Oceanographers and meteorologists do consider it important and do consider it an ocean," Kelly said.

But other experts don't even agree that it officially exists.

It's a dispute that shows not only how teachers can be thrust into academic disagreements, but how those scientific debates can take time to trickle down to classrooms.

Not official

Among the detractors of a formal designation is the National Geographic Society, which doesn't officially recognize the Southern Ocean. But the respected body hasn't exactly closed the books on the concept either. Cindy Aitken, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the newest edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World says: "The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into icy water around Antarctica. Some define this as an ocean, calling it the Antarctic Ocean, Austral Ocean or Southern Ocean. While most accept four oceans, including the Arctic, there is no international agreement on the name or extent of a fifth ocean.

"In general, National Geographic recognizes the Southern Ocean as a scientific term and not a oceanographic feature."

The CIA World Factbook website has a page dedicated to the Southern Ocean, calling it the fourth-largest of the world's five oceans. But it also says "inclusion of the Southern Ocean does not imply recognition of this feature as one of the world's primary oceans by the U.S. government."

Closer to home, Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education curriculum guidelines do not specify what oceans should be covered, or not covered, in classrooms. Likewise, the Illinois State Board of Education defines state learning standards for geography — but nothing that mentions specific names of oceans.

So if states don't mention the Southern Ocean in their curriculum standards and the U.S. government doesn't give it an official nod, what's a teacher to do?

Multiple viewpoints

Educators such as Jessica Vehlewald, a past president of the Missouri Council for Social Studies, say the topic needs to be addressed in the classroom, but with explanations regarding why everyone is in not in agreement on the name and existence of the Southern Ocean.

"It's just one of those things that your scientists and geographers are going to argue back and forth, and that's how we approach it — just like we do with anything else in regard to current events or government and geography," said Vehlewald, who coordinates social studies for the Rockwood School District. "That's what social studies is about: looking at multiple perspectives and multiple points of view and looking at evidence that supports it."

Vehlewald said Rockwood didn't address the subject in absolutes.

"It all depends on how it's presented," she said. "If the teachers are saying, 'This is still controversial and so I'm going to ask you to know the oceans that are commonly accepted, but remember that this (the Southern Ocean) is there,' that's not inappropriate."

Ladue Middle School earth science teacher Kathy Murphy likens resistance to accepting the notion of the Southern Ocean to opposition regarding a change in Pluto's status. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union bumped Pluto off the list of planets schoolchildren had memorized for decades and reclassified it as a "dwarf planet."

But while a respected group of experts made their case, it has taken time for the message to sink in, not to mention time for textbooks listing Pluto as a planet to be replaced with more up-to-date books.

"You still have to convince people that Pluto is not a planet because they changed the definition," Murphy said.

Like Kelly, Murphy oversees a course for teachers sponsored by the American Meteorological Society. Murphy said educators had an obligation to throw themselves into such academic disputes, even before they have been settled.

"As things change, I think we're almost responsible for letting kids in on the new changes because that's part of education — learning what's new and what's changing and rethinking previous ideas and being open to new ideas," Murphy said. "I think it's always good to go deeper into depth than what you're required to do by the state."

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