Southern Ocean

The southern polar region is one of the world's most pristine environments. But even its remoteness can no longer save it from the threats of pollution and climate change. WWF is leading the fight to protect Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
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Peterman Island. Antarctic Peninsula.
© Sylvia Rubli / WWF-Canon
Few of the Earth’s remaining wilderness environments are more valuable or vulnerable than Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean.
The marine environment supports rich plant and animal life, including penguins, seals, whales and albatrosses.

Just a few decades ago this region was virtually untouched by human exploitation. Today, it is under sustained attack from land, sea and air, putting many species at risk.

The threats

Unsustainable fishing is pushing fish stocks to the brink of collapse, and leaving seabirds and mammals without enough food to survive.

The Southern Ocean has also become a dumping ground for rubbish. Each year thousands of animals ingest or get ensnared on discarded plastic, fishing nets and hooks, causing significant deaths.

But the greatest long-term threat to the region is climate change.

With the ice-shelf melting and glaciers shrinking, the nesting and feeding grounds of the Emperor and Adélie penguins as well as other species are under threat.

Krill, the foundation of the Antarctic food chain, is also facing a huge reduction in numbers, putting the entire marine ecosystem at risk.

The solutions

Whale / ©: WWF-Canon / Wim VAN PASSEL
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), close-up. Drake Passage, South Pole, Antarctica.
© WWF-Canon / Wim VAN PASSEL
To conserve this vast and amazing marine environment for future generations, WWF is working in the region to ensure that:
  • a network of marine protected areas is established across 2,000,000km2, or 10% of the Southern Ocean
  • the impacts of climate change on Antarctica and in the Southern Ocean are understood and effective adaptation measures are taken
  • fishing is sustainably managed, ensuring that fish stocks and ecosystems are not over-exploited
  • a moratorium on mineral exploitation in the region remains in place under the Antarctic treaty system

Where is the Southern Ocean region?

The Southern Ocean region is highlighted in blue. It includes areas of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and western Antarctica.


View WWF Critical Regions of the World in a larger map

Facts & Figures

    • Comprising a total area of 20,327,000km2, the Southern Ocean comprises the southernmost waters below 60 degrees south latitude; it encircles the entire Antarctic continent.
    • Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.
    • Geologically the youngest of the world's oceans, the Southern Ocean formed when Antarctica and South America moved apart, opening the Drake Passage, roughly 30 million years ago.
    • The ocean has typical depths of between 4,000 and 5,000 metres; the lowest point is -7,235m at the southern end of the South Sandwich Trench.
    • Sea temperatures vary from about 10°C to -2°C.
    • A warming of 2°C in the Southern Ocean is predicted to reduce winter sea ice coverage by 10-15% and up to 30% in some key areas.
    • Around 100 million birds breed in Antarctica, with the continent's 7 penguin species making up 90% of them.

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