We all know that geography changes over time: countries splinter, capitals move, countries and cities change names. However, most of these reflect human changes, so I generally don’t expect natural geography to change. Nonetheless, over the past few years, I’ve noticed some exceptions that illustrate the discrepancy between geography in my youth and geography today.
1. The Southern Ocean – When I was young, there were four oceans: Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, and Pacific. The water around Antarctica didn’t have its own name; instead, Antarctica had coasts on the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In the year 2000, however, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) dubbed it the Southern Ocean. The IHO has just 68 member countries because landlocked countries are excluded from membership. When the IHO proposed naming it as a new ocean, only 28 of the 68 members formally responded. Argentina opposed the proposal, while the other 27 supported it, and 18 of those 27 voted for Southern Ocean over Antarctic Ocean. Long story short, now the world is stuck with the Southern Ocean because fewer than 10% of the world’s 190+ countries voted in favor of it.
2. The Alboran Sea – As a child, I enjoyed reading my parents’ atlas, and I was especially fond of the smaller seas within the Mediterranean, such as the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian. Recently I was puzzled to see the westernmost portion of the Mediterrean, just east of the Strait of Gibraltar, referenced as the Alboran Sea. That was new to me, and I confirmed that it’s not found in my parents’ atlas from 1964 (which I still have today), nor in the monumental 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose full text is searchable online. I can’t determine when the new name was introduced or why, but I wonder if it might be an Arabic-derived term (Al-Boran?) adopted from North African usage to give equal time to the non-European nations of the Mediterranean.
3. Oceania – I grew up learning that Australia was one of the seven continents. Today, the emerging consensus seems to be that Australia is the largest landmass in the continent called Oceania. In my opinion, this undermines the commonsense definition of a continent, which is supposed to refer to a large landmass, not as far-flung an assemblage of islands as Fiji and Kiribati. Granted, we refer to Ireland as European, and we refer to Japan as Asian, but at least they’re close to the large continental landmasses with which they’re associated; their separation pales in comparison to the vast, watery expanse between Australia and Tahiti (4900 miles away). At least I’m in good company on this issue because the National Geographic Society considers Australia a continent, located in the region known as Oceania: that’s a compromise I can gladly embrace.