West Coast
The new marine heatwave off the West Coast stands out in this map of sea surface temperature anomalies, with darker red denoting temperatures farther above average. The highest temperatures shown are more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average. (Image from NOAA Coral Reef Watch)

'The Blob' is back in the Pacific Ocean, but what does it mean?

SEATTLE -- "The Blob" is back as a sequel...

Those of you who were around here in the winter of 2014-15 likely remember hearing the term bandied about quite frequently. It was the name affectionately given to a massive pool of warmer-than-normal waters that stretched from the Pacific Ocean waters from Alaska to Southern California, not only wreaking havoc on our region's temperatures (leading to the warmest winter, summer and overall year on record) but having serious effects on the marine ecosystem and salmon runs.

It finally faded as we headed late into 2015, but now it's back.

Research scientists with NOAA Fisheries note that a new expanse of unusually warm water has quickly grown in much the same way, in the same area, to almost the same size -- again stretching from Alaska to California.

Sea surface temperature anomaly maps show temperatures above normal in orange and red. (Image: NOAA Coral Reef Watch)

“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” said Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. "Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen."

In fact, NOAA says it already ranks as the second largest marine heat wave on record over the past 40 years of data, only behind the original Blob in 2015.

What causes the blob?

The ocean temperatures warm along the water's surface when persistent and large areas of high pressure in the area keeps winds calm. That allows the sun to warm the surface and, more importantly, the lack of winds keeps from churning the ocean and mixing in cooler water from the depths below.

So far, the early stages of this Blob are similar to the early stages of the original Blob. Temperature anomalies this summer have reached as much as 5 degrees above normal, NOAA says. The 2015 Blob peaked at about 7 degrees above normal.

A process called "upwelling" in which summer breezes carry water away from the coasts, bringing in cooler water from the depths of the ocean to replace it, has keep the areas just offshore relatively cool, but that process typically wanes in the fall.

The heatwave could then move onshore and affect coastal temperatures, Leising says, adding it already appears to have happened along the coast of Washington.

What does the Blob do?

The 2015 Blob had several effects on the marine web food chain.

According to NOAA, the Blob:

  • Forced sea lion mothers to forage further from their rookeries in the Channel Islands off Southern California. Hungry pups set out on their own, but many became stranded on area beaches.
  • Created the largest harmful algal bloom recorded on the West Coast, which shut down crabbing and clamming for months.
  • Left thousands of young California sea lions stranding on beaches.
  • Was responsible for multiple declared fishery disasters.

But NOAA Fisheries scientists say they're getting prepared, having recently convened a special meeting to discuss the emerging heatwave and how to anticipate and track its effects.

“Given the magnitude of what we saw last time, we want to know if this evolves on a similar path,” said Chris Harvey, a research scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

One challenge will be applying lessons learned from the last heat wave to anticipate and mitigate potential impacts of the new one, NOAA says. For example, the warm water of “the Blob” led humpback and other whales to feed closer to shore. Record numbers became entangled in lines from crab traps and other fishing gear. In response, fishermen, managers, and others have formed working groups in California, Oregon, and Washington. They hope to find ways of reducing the risk of entanglements.

Humans feel The Blob Effects too...

The Blob affects weather patterns too, as much of our weather comes off the Pacific Ocean. Heating the waters several degrees had the virtual effect of placing an electric blanket off the coast.

The Blob was blamed for helping aid in the hottest year on record in Seattle, which for the first time since data was kept since the late 1800s, the city had an average summer high temperature over 80 degrees, aided by a record-smashing 12 days over 90 degrees. Winter was marked by several mild days, the warmest December on record (in 2014) and only 104 inches of snow for the season at Snoqualmie Pass -- just 25 percent of a normal year.

The Silver Lining

While 2015's blob lasted for several months, this Blog is not necessarily destined for the same fate and could dissipate quickly. Since the warming is still new, it could be erased quickly if stormier conditions return to the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

“It looks bad, but it could also go away pretty quickly if the unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change,” said Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

(A "Blobby" Winter would also run afoul of the Old Farmer's Almanac "Wet... or worse!" wintry forecast for Western Washington, for what that's worth....)

And previous "Blobs" that tried to form in 2016 and 2018 quickly abated, though neither were this strong at this point.

NOAA says current forecasts do show the heat wave moderating but continuing for months.

Scientists wonder if the new heatwave will last long enough to affect the marine ecosystem, and biologists say that its large size means it probably already has.

“There are definitely concerning implications for the ecosystem,” said Nick Bond, a research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the study of the Atmosphere and Ocean in Seattle, a collaboration between NOAA and the University of Washington. He's also credited with naming 'the Blob.' "It's all a matter of how long it lasts and how deep it goes."

Real-time research on environmental changes will give managers the details they need to respond, said Kristen Koch, Director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“This is a time when we all need to know how our marine ecosystem is changing, and what that means for those of us who live along the West Coast.”

See KOMONews.com article . . .