The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water in the globe and is one of the five oceans that surround the continents. The other oceans are the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Indian, and the Atlantic. The ocean was named by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who is believed to be the first to have crossed the ocean in the early 16th century. The ocean is named as such due to the calmness of its waters that Magellan noticed upon entering it after passing through the straits at the tip of South America. What do scientists know about the Pacific Ocean and what makes it an important body of water? This term paper discusses some basic details about the Pacific and its significance both in the past and today.
Location and Size
The Pacific Ocean, or more commonly called as simply the Pacific, is the world’s largest body of water. It is located between four continents. To its east are the continents of North America and the South America. To its west is the continent of Asia and to its southwest is the continent of Oceania. The ocean also extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean that surrounds the Antarctic in the south. The vastness of the Pacific is also astounding. According to the World Factbook, this ocean covers a total surface area of 155.55 million square kilometers (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2020), which is around a third of the world’s total surface area and around 50% larger than the Atlantic Ocean’s 106.46 million square kilometers (Broadus, 2020). The Pacific is astonishingly large that it is actually a little bigger than the world’s total land area. Some of its dependent seas include the Philippine Sea, the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Coral Sea among many others.
The boundaries of the Pacific Ocean are largely delineated by mountain systems in the east. Almost the entire east side of the Pacific is lined by the cordilleran system that runs from Alaska in the north to the tip of Chile in the south. The west side of the ocean, on the other hand, runs along the coast of the Asian landmass but largely punctuated by both large and small island nations. Overall, the Pacific borders a total of 44 countries which include landmasses such as the United States, Russia, China, and Australia as well as island nations such as Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and numerous tiny Pacific island states.
The dimensions of the Pacific are also impressive. It stretches from the Bering Strait in the north down to the Antarctic in the south for over 15,500 kilometers and from the coast of Colombia in the east to the Malay Peninsula in the west for over 19,300 kilometers. It has a total volume of 710,000,000 cubic kilometers, which is more than twice the volume of the Atlantic Ocean. The Pacific is also known for its deep waters. The average depth of the Pacific is around 4,280 meters. The deepest location in Earth is also found in this ocean. The Mariana Trench has been measured as reaching a depth of 11,034 meters, which is a greater than the height of the world’s highest mountain (Morgan, 2020). Finally, its total coastline measures 135,663 kilometers (CIA, 2020). Although the Pacific is the largest ocean, it does not receive the largest continental drainage. Only a seventh of the world’s continental drainage enters the Pacific, as opposed to the Atlantic which receives the waters from the world’s major rivers (Morgan, 2020).
History of the Pacific
The Continental Drift Theory asserts the existence of constantly shifting plates that form the Earth’s surface. Around 400 million years ago, a supercontinent known as Pangea began to form. It was a single landmass surrounded by a single massive ocean called Panthalassa. But as plates pulled away from or collide against each other, new bodies of water and land masses appeared. For example, the Atlantic Ocean is believed to have emerged following the breaking apart of the continents of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. These continents were once connected to each other. But their breakup resulted in the creation of the Atlantic between them. By contrast, the Pacific Ocean is a remnant of Panthalassa. Researchers believe that the Pacific was originally part of the Panthalassa. However, as the continents spread out, they have nowhere else to go but inch closer to each other on the other side of the planet. Hence, these continents eventually formed the Pacific Ocean by surrounding it. In fact, the Pacific is shrinking by a few inches every year as the continents draw nearer to each other (Neall and Trewick, 2008).
With regard to its more recent history, the Pacific Ocean is known to have been navigated by humans for thousands of years. Researchers believe, for instance, that people from Southeast Asia migrated to Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia as early as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Furthermore, it is believed that the Maori settled in New Zealand around 1,000 years ago. The farthest that the voyagers migrated was to Hawaii. Coasts were also widely navigated. For example, precolonial societies in the Malay Archipelago traded with East Asia, thus facilitating economic and cultural exchange in the region. These societies were connected by trade routes that were part of the greater Maritime Silk Road. Such exchanges contributed to the spread of beliefs and practices including religion (Morgan, 2020).
Exploration of the Pacific Ocean by the west, however, did not occur until the 16th century, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa came across the Pacific Ocean after crossing Panama. Ferdinand Magellan was then the first person to cross the Pacific while in search of a westward route to Asia. Similar to the effect of the discovery of the Atlantic Ocean, the discovery of the Pacific led to greater trade between East and West. Spain colonized the Philippines and started the Manila Galleons. Goods from Asia were brought to Spain in exchange for silver. These goods then crossed Mexico and were shipped to Europe by way of the Atlantic. The Manila Galleons lasted for two and a half centuries, in the process facilitating extensive cultural exchange between these regions (Hecht, 2003).
Since the first transpacific voyage 500 years ago, the Pacific Ocean has continued to play crucial role in global affairs. The ocean is particularly important in the fishing industry, as it has been the source of fish for billions of people around the world. It is also crossed by countless vessels every year as part of the global trade. But the different effects of globalization on the ocean have not always been positive. For one, researchers warn against overfishing in the Pacific which can potentially disrupt supply and demand and cause massive shortages in the future. The Pacific is also the site of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between California and Hawaii, this patch is approximately the size of Texas and is composed of microplastics floating on the surface. This patch of miniscule particles of plastic accumulates in this area on account of ocean currents. Unless drastic actions such as reducing the use of plastic and cleaning the ocean are taken, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch poses several risks to both humans and the environment (Gibbens, 2019).
As the largest ocean in the world, the Pacific Ocean has always occupied an important place in global affairs. For hundreds of years, it served as the channel through human migration and trade were conducted. Today, it is the center of extensive economic activities including fishing and the transport of goods. But while the sheer vastness of the Pacific gives it a formidable air, research shows that it has vulnerabilities that society must not ignore. Issues like overfishing and pollution must be addressed not only for the sake of ecosystems that thrive in the Pacific but also for the sake of billions of people who rely on this ocean for their sustenance.
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Central Intelligence Agency. (2020). Pacific Ocean. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_zn.html
Gibbens, S. (2019). The Pacific Ocean, explained. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/oceans/reference/pacific-ocean/
Hecht, J. (2003). “The Manila Galleon Trade (1565–1815).” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mgtr/hd_mgtr.htm
Morgan, J. R. (2020). “Pacific Ocean.” In Britannica Encyclopedia. https://www.britannica.com/place/Pacific-Ocean
Neall, V. E. and Trewick, S. A. (2008). “The age and origin of the Pacific islands: a geological overview.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1508): 3293–3308. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0119