After two years, is The Blob finally dead?

SST anomalies Pacific Nov.-Dec. 2015
Sea surface temperature maps from early November (left) and early December (right) show declines in warm water anomalies that became known as The Blob. (Image courtesy of NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

 

Northeast Pacific sea surface temperatures suggest an unusual mass of warm water has either diminished dramatically or even started dissipating in November.

“It’s an evolving system,” says Nicholas Bond, a senior scientist at NOAA’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. In a monthly newsletter Bond wrote while working as the Washington State Climatologist, he coined the nickname The Blob for the area of ocean which showed increasing sea surface temperatures in October 2013.

“We can see the beginning of the end for The Blob,” Bond says. “But, by some measures, it’s still got its ugly head. It’s still rearing.”

At its peak, The Blob generated ocean surface temperatures that were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius above average. Now, temperatures are only .5 to 1.5 degrees Celsius above average.

“It has moderated to an extent. Whether it’s gone or still there is kind of a matter of taste,” Bond says. “But it is warm enough there relative to normal that it’s probably having an impact on the weather, especially in places right along the coast.”

Temperatures are still slightly above normal near shore, but temperatures have significantly cooled to near normal in some areas far offshore in the middle of the Northeast Pacific.

What does The Blob look like right now? Click here to see live maps of Eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

 

One of Bond’s colleagues claims The Blob is already dead.

“The big amplitude of warm water is gone and there’s no reason to expect it to reform at all,” says Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Mass says persistent high pressure over the northeast Pacific earlier moderated winds near the ocean surface.

“Which means there’s less mixing in the upper ocean and which brings up less cold water from below,” Mass says.

But Mass says that high pressure hasn’t been as persistent lately, and more cold water is now being stirred up from below.

“It’s really changed. That’s because of El Niño,” Mass says. “The El Niño circulation works against The Blob, and that’s progressively happening now.”

Scientists believe that this winter’s El Niño, a phenomenon associated with equatorial ocean warming, could be the strongest in decades. That, Mass writes in his blog, should be good news for Pacific Northwest ski areas.

Bond believes the ocean is still retaining enough heat energy for The Blob to persist for at least several more months, and it could actually be reinforced by El Niño near shore.

Aside from affecting weather patterns and prompting changes in precipitation, the higher sea surface temperatures may also be responsible for recent sightings of unusual species in the northeast Pacific, such as sunfish and tuna. But Bond says those are anecdotal accounts of stragglers getting swept up north. He says it’s more important to consider what is happening at the base of the food chain where there may be more warm water plankton than cold water plankton.

“That’s actually a big deal because those cold water species are bigger and have more fat in them. So, more calories for the small fish, the juvenile salmon and so forth that feed on them,” Bond says. “That kind of transition that we’ve seen over the last year or so is kind of still going on and it is having impacts on the whole marine food web.”

Bond says juvenile salmon and seabirds may be doing poorly along the West Coast while tuna could benefit from the increased temperatures.

Scientists from a variety of fields will converge on Seattle next month for another conference on recent changes and impacts of The Blob. Biologists and climatologists previously met last May in San Diego.

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