‘The Blob’… on winter vacation or gone for good?

Is ‘The Blob’ taking a winter breather? Or, is it fizzling out? After over two years, is The Blob finally dead? The giant, persistent mass of warm ocean water seems to have cooled over the last few months, possibly because of another warm ocean phenomenon that is now dominating the Pacific.

Download Audio

Map showing how the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly had moved and spread along the West Coast by March 2015. (Image provided by the NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division at Boulder, Colorado)
“The Blob” is the knot of red (warm seawater) pressed up against the West Coast. This map shows how the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly had moved and spread along the West Coast by March 2015. (Image provided by the NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division at Boulder, Colorado)

 

Measurements of Northeast Pacific sea surface temperatures suggest an unusual mass of warm water 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, identified the increasing sea surface temperatures starting in October 2013. Bond was the one who coined the nickname The Blob in a monthly newsletter in his other role as Washington state’s climatologist.

“We can see the beginning of the end for The Blob. 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 half a degree 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. 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, far offshore in the middle of the Northeast Pacific, temperatures have significantly cooled to near normal in some areas.

“The big amplitude of warm water, that’s gone and there’s no reason to expect it to reform at all.”

Cliff Mass claims The Blob is dead. Mass is a professor of atmospheric sciences and one of Bond’s colleagues at the University of Washington. He 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.”

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 Nino. The El Nino circulation works against The Blob, and that’s progressively happening now.”

El Nino — which is associated with equatorial ocean warming — is going gangbusters. That, Mass writes in his blog, should still be good news for Pacific Northwest ski areas.

Nicholas 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 Nino near shore.

Aside from affecting weather patterns and prompting changes in precipitation, the higher sea surface temperatures may also be responsible for the recent appearance of unusual species in the Northeast Pacific, like tuna and sunfish.

But Bond says those are anecdotal accounts of stragglers getting swept up north.

What’s more important is what’s happening at the base of the food chain. He says there’s still 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. 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 sea birds 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 in late January for another conference on recent changes and impacts of The Blob.