The Indian Ocean is one of the five oceans that cover the majority of the world’s water surface. The four other oceans are: the Atlantic as situated between the Americas, Europe, and Africa; the Pacific as situated between the Americas, Asia, and Oceania; the Arctic as situated around the Arctic Circle; and the Antarctic as situated around Antarctica. Named after the subcontinent of India, the Indian Ocean has been an important body of water for thousands of years. It is also a very interesting ocean for many reasons, including its unusual features and rich history. What makes the Indian Ocean an important body of water? What is its history? What issues does it face today and in the future? In this term paper, we take a look at the features of the Indian Ocean and discuss its history and significance in the modern age.
Location and Size
The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world, the first being the Pacific Ocean and the second being the Atlantic. The ocean is located between three continents and unlike the Pacific and the Atlantic does not stretch from the Arctic to the Antarctic. To its northeast is Oceania dominated by the Australian landmass; to its west is Africa; and to its north are the southern regions of Asia including the Malay Archipelago. To the south of the Atlantic Ocean is the Southern or Antarctic Ocean and beyond that the continent of Antarctica. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, the Indian Ocean covers an area of 70.56 million square kilometers—roughly the equivalent to 20% of the world’s ocean surface (Eakins and Sharman, 2010). It also includes a number of marginal seas, chief of which are the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden among others. Some of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean are Australia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Oman, Yemen, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia. Several small island nations are also located in the Indian Ocean including Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius among others.
The Indian Ocean’s dimensions are vast. It stretches for around 9,600 kilometers from Antarctica to the Bay of Bengal and around 7,600 kilometers from the coast of Africa to the coast of Australia. The Indian Ocean has an average depth of 3,960 meters and its deepest point is the Java Trench which descends 7,450 meters into the Earth’s crust (Kanayev, 2020). The drainage basin of the Indian Ocean covers an area of around 21.8 million square kilometers. This figure equates to around a third of the ocean’s surface. Some of the major rivers that drain into the Indian Ocean are the Indus and the Ganges in Asia, the Zambezi and the Jubba in Africa, and the Murray in Australia (Vorosmarty et al., 2000).
History of the Indian Ocean
The Continental Drift Theory provides a model for how the continents and the oceans formed. As the world’s plates move around and collide against or pull away from each other, landmasses and bodies of water are formed. While the Atlantic Ocean was formed following the breakup of Pangea and the Pacific is a remnant of the Panthalassa that once surrounded Pangea, the Indian Ocean has a more complicated history. Researchers believe that the Indian Ocean formed as a result of India, Australia and Antarctica breaking up. Once connected to each other and comprising a supercontinent, India broke away and drifted northward where it collided with Eurasia, thus forming the northern border of the ocean. Australia then drifted eastward while Antarctica moved southward, thereby creating the eastern and southern borders of the ocean. Finally, Africa moved westward, thus creating the western border of the ocean. All this occurred starting around 180 million years ago. The Indian Ocean reached its present form around 36 million years ago (Kanayev, 2020).
Human history involving the Indian Ocean, however, is far more recent. Researchers believe that the Indian Ocean was first explored by the Egyptians as early as 2900 BCE when they voyaged to the Land of Punt, which scholars consider to be in the vicinity of Somalia. Incursions to the Indian Ocean became routine over the subsequent centuries as the Maritime Silk Road developed and expanded. The Chinese explorer Zheng He, for instance, explored the Indian Ocean numerous times in the early 15th century and reached as far as the coast of Africa. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama sailed around the tip of Africa in the late 15th century and reached India. By this time, the Maritime Silk Road stretched from the east coast of Africa to the Malay Archipelago, thereby creating a vast network of sea routes that ultimately reached back to Europe via the Isthmus of Suez (Kanayev, 2020). Exploration and trade on the Indian Ocean resulted in economic and cultural exchange. Goods were heavily traded among these regions, as were ideas and ideologies. The arrival of the Portuguese in India, for instance, led to the introduction of Christianity in the region.
The Indian Ocean in the Modern Age
Similar to its role during the Age of Exploration, the Indian Ocean plays an important role in global trade. The routes in the Indian Ocean are especially vital to the oil trade. It is estimated that around 80% of the world’s oil passes through the Indian Ocean (DeSilva-Ranasinghe, 2011). Furthermore, the Indian Ocean remains the link between Europe and Asia. Major manufacturing centers typically located in India, Bengal, Southeast Asia, and East Asia are connected to Europe by Indian Ocean routes which pass through the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean. Fishing is also an important industry in the Indian Ocean. It is estimated that the Indian Ocean contributes 11.01 million tons of fish and seafood every year (Ruwa and Rice, 2016), thus making it a vital source of food for the global population.
A prominent part of the Indian Ocean’s history is the 2004 tsunami. On the 26th of December 2004, a massive magnitude 9 earthquake occurred off the coast of the west coast of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that hit countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and even far-off Somalia. The event resulted in the death of over 227,000 people and economic destruction equivalent to around $9.4 billion (Athukorala, 2012). The event came as a shock to the world and initiated an international humanitarian outreach program. World governments donated billions of dollars to the cause.
Like the rest of the world’s oceans, however, the Indian Ocean faces various issues. For one, overfishing has been a concern. Researchers estimate that around 25% of fish resources in the southwest Indian Ocean has been harvested beyond sustainability levels. The other 75% has also already reached its limit (DeSilva-Ranasinghe, 2011). Pollution is also a prime concern. The Indian Ocean is the second most polluted ocean in the world. Studies show that as many as 1 trillion pieces of garbage are floating in the Indian Ocean, most of which are single-use plastics (Habbib, 2016). Together, pollution and overfishing pose threats both to the supply and demand of seafood and the marine biodiversity on which countless people depend for their livelihood
The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world. Formed around 180 million years ago, the Indian Ocean has had a long and rich history. Exploration began as early as 2900 BCE. In the succeeding centuries, its routes became integral components of the Maritime Silk Road. Its role as a waterway and a source of livelihood remains to this day, especially when it comes to the trade of goods and oil. But like the other oceans of the world, it is threatened by issues like overfishing and pollution. Such issues serve to further the call for long-term sustainable solutions.
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DeSilva-Ranasinghe, S. (2011). Why the Indian Ocean matters. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2011/03/why-the-indian-ocean-matters/
Eakins, B. W. and Sharman, G. F. (2010). Volumes of the world’s oceans ETOPO1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/global/etopo1_ocean_volumes.html
Habbib, S. (2016). Indian Ocean second-most polluted in the world. Northglen News. https://northglennews.co.za/84093/indian-ocean-second-most-polluted
Kanayev, V. F. (2020). “Indian Ocean.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Indian-Ocean
Ruwa, R. and Rice, J. (2016). Chapter 36E. Indian Ocean. United Nations. https://www.un.org/depts/los/global_reporting/WOA_RPROC/Chapter_36E.pdf
Vorosmarty, C. J., Fekete, B. M., Meybeck, M., and Lammers, R. B. (2000). “Global system of rivers: Its role in organizing continental land mass and defining land-to-ocean linkages.” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 14(2):599-621. doi:10.1029/1999GB900092