- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

DUMONT D’URVILLE BASE, Antarctica

Battered by the most-violent winds on the planet, the South Polar Ocean, or Southern Ocean, formed until the mid-19th century an impenetrable barrier around Antarctica that in places plumbs depths of more than 23,000 feet.

Coursing at its center is the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a gigantic aquatic conveyor belt 125 to 625 miles wide and 15,000 miles long that flows from west to east around the icy continent.

During its journey around Antarctica, which takes three years to complete, the world’s strongest ocean current serves as an interchange between the waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins.

Covering 8.12 million square miles and bordered by nearly 11,000 miles of coastline, the Southern Ocean is slightly more than twice the size of the United States and is the fourth-largest of Earth’s five oceans.

The Arctic Ocean, with the North Pole at its center, is just 1.5 times the size of the United States.

The relatively “young” body of water surrounding the world’s southernmost continent was created when the land masses of Antarctica and South America broke apart — the final stage of the disintegration of the ancient southern supercontinent “Gondwana,” from which Africa, Australia and the Indian subcontinent were also born.

Devoid of islands or anything else that could offer resistance to the wind, howling gales race across the ocean’s surface at average speeds of 55 to 60 miles per hour. The fiercest gusts reach nearly double that speed.

“That explains the impressive sound effects these winds create and why sailors call them the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s,” French meteorologist Patrick Calois told Agence France-Presse recently.

The absence of land masses in the ocean also leads to gigantic waves more than 98 feet high. These “rogue waves” struck terror into the hearts of 19th-century navigators and mean that sea voyages to Antarctica’s isolated scientific-research stations remain perilous to this day.

Equally perilous for the rare ships able to make the trip are the treacherous icebergs sliding silently through its waters.

Then there is the cold.

The ocean is bitterly frigid — as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit — and temperamental. At any moment, the temperature may change abruptly because of collisions between currents that vary in iciness, salinity and concentration of nutrients.

The presence of nutrients means the Southern Ocean is a rich and diverse aquatic world of crustaceans and fish, not to mention penguins, whales and seals. It also explains why for centuries, commercial fishing and whaling ships have been lured to its dangerous seas.

“Near the Antarctic continent, the waters are very rich,” said marine ecologist Philippe Koubbi, who is doing research here at the French scientific base of Dumont d’Urville.

“At the bottom of the ocean, 90 percent of the fish are endemic,” meaning exclusive to this habitat, he said.

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