In late 2013, Washington’s state climatologist Nicholas Bond noticed something weird going in on the waters off the Pacific Northwest. In a June 2014 newsletter, he described a warmer than average patch of ocean water: “The Pacific Northwest experienced a period of seasonally quiet and dry weather from October 2013 into February 2014,” he wrote, adding:
“This period also featured anomalously weak cooling of the upper ocean off our coat for the time of the year. The result was what will hereafter be referred to as the ‘blob’, a large mass of water that was ~3° C warmer than normal in February 2014 and is still prominent.”
Bond went on to predict what the blob could mean for the Pacific Northwest, especially in its expected interaction with that year’s El Niño.
Since then, researchers have been tracking the effects of the blob — and found them to be quite disturbing. The Associated Press detailed some of the ramifications in a recent article:
“Tropical plankton are showing up for the first time. Native plankton are breeding much later. Brown pelicans are refusing to mate at all. And toxic algal blooms are spreading rapidly, at times shutting down commercial and recreational fishing… the blob might also be to blame for a major die-off of Cassin's auklets this past winter. From California to Canada – but mostly in Oregon – beachgoers have reported hundreds of the small seabirds had washed ashore. By January, that number reached tens of thousands. That's 100 times more than their average mortality rate.”
The blob, coupled with El Niño and other factors, has dramatically changed the ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest. And it will continue to do so, for at least another year.
In a phone interview with Fusion, Bond said that a number of climate models that take into account both atmosphere and the oceans predict that the water off the Pacific Northwest will remain warm into 2016, at least. “There’s a tremendous amount of heat that’s stored up in the ocean there, but if we get into a different type of weather pattern that extra heat can go away in a season, or a couple of seasons.” He added that the waters that make up the blob are now “as warm as we’ve ever seen them off the Pacific Northwest,” in recorded history.
You may be wondering how this blob came to be — if you’re thinking "global warming," you’re wrong. This, Bond explained, is more like a naturally occurring fluke caused by unusual weather patterns. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn about global warming from the blob. Bond said that what we’re seeing is “kind of a preview to some of the temperatures we’re liable to see much more of in the coming decades” as a result of global warming. He added, “we are trying to use this as an opportunity to learn which parts of the marine ecosystem are especially sensitive to the sorts of things that we’re seeing here, and which parts are more resilient. It is an opportunity to learn how the system works… we can learn how to adapt to what is happening.”
For now, humans in the Pacific Northwest can look forward to another warmer than usual winter, while ocean-dwellers get a taste of the rougher days ahead.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.