The Blob: Pacific Warm Patch Baffles Scientists

April 13, 2015

Seattle Times:

A gargantuan blob of warm water that’s been parked off the West Coast for 18 months is part of a larger pattern that helps explain California’s drought, Washington’s snow-starved ski resorts and record blizzards in New England, according to new analyses by Seattle scientists.

The researchers aren’t convinced global warming is to blame, which puts them at odds with other experts who suspect Arctic melting upset the “polar vortex” and contributed to the misery on the East Coast the past two winters.

University of Washington climate scientist Nick Bond coined the term “The Blob” to describe the pool of water, up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual, that blossomed offshore in the fall of 2013. It’s still there, hundreds of miles wide and stretching from Alaska to Mexico.

Average temperatures are now about 3.6 degrees above normal, and climate models predict the anomaly will persist through the end of the year.

maine_blob0413

In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Bond and his colleagues conclude that the blob has disrupted the marine ecosystem in multiple ways, triggering an influx of sunfish and other tropical species, lowering nutrient levels and contributing to the mass starvation of seabirds called Cassin’s auklets off Washington and Oregon this winter.

“For a lot of critters it turns out to be bad news,” Bond said. “Warm water is not as favorable for many organisms.”

In February 2014, the temperature spikes were the most extreme in at least 30 years, and possibly in more than a century. The researchers found that the presence of the blob also influenced Northwest weather by warming and humidifying onshore flows, which contributed to last year’s muggy summer and thunderstorms that sparked the biggest wildfire in state history.

This winter’s meager snowfall is also partly attributable to the blob, Bond said.

 Christian Science Monitor:

Scientists first observed the patch of warm water in June 2014, when Bond noticed that Washington state had experienced a milder winter than usual. At that point, the warm patch stretched about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in each direction and was 300 feet (91 meters) deep.

Since then, the warm blob has persisted, though it has become a long, skinny finger of water instead. In a study published Monday (April 6) in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Bond and his colleagues argue that a high-pressure ridge above the Pacific Ocean over the past two winters had led to calmer seas. Without roiling waters to transfer heat to the cold air above it, the ocean remained warmer than usual, the team concluded.

Note, my video of last spring discusses this so-called “ridiculously resilient ridge”.

Christian Science Monitor again:

People can also thank the blob (in part) for the drought conditions experienced in California, Oregon and Washington this year. As the air cycles over the warmer water, it heats up and brings less snow, translating into drier conditions inland.

thresher

Fish like this Thresher shark have been spotted outside of their usual range.

What’s more, this warm blob has been disrupting ocean ecosystems, the researchers said. For instance, fish have been spotted in new waters, in part because they lack the normally nutrient-rich, cold waters that upwell from deep in the ocean. Skinny and dying sea lion pups and seabirds have been washing ashore off California’s coast, according to the “Annual State of the California Current Ecosystem Report.”

Washington Post:

If the PDO is not only positive but is going to stay that way, it could be a big deal. Here’s why: Some scientists think a persistent cool phase of the PDO cycle may be a key part of the reason why there has been a much discussed “slowdown” of global surface warming recently. And if they’re right about that, then with the end of the cool phase, we may also see an end to any global warming “hiatus.”

The reason is the way the PDO works. While any such planetary scale wobble has multiple ramifications, one of them is the way it influences the distribution of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere.

“When you’re in a cool phase, heat from the atmosphere gets buried in the ocean,” says John Abraham, a climate scientist at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “When you’re in a warm phase, that heat comes out. And we’ve just switched from a cool to a warm phase.”

Indeed, Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo, two climate researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., have argued that the PDO helps explain the alleged global warming “pause” through a mechanism of heat sinking deep down into the Pacific:

The picture emerging is one where the positive phase of the PDO from 1976 to 1998 enhanced the surface warming somewhat by reducing the amount of heat sequestered by the deep ocean, while the negative phase of the PDO is one where more heat gets deposited at greater depths, contributing to the overall warming of the oceans but cooling the surface somewhat.

The alleged “pause,” say Trenberth and Fasullo, coincided with a negative phase of the PDO in the 2000s.

That’s why Trenberth has further argued that the new apparent shift back into the PDO’s positive phase may mark the beginning of a temperature ramp-up. As he explains by e-mail:

Instead of thinking of global warming as providing a steady relentless climb in global temperatures, one should think of it more as an up staircase. So we may well have gone up the next step, and then we vary up and down a bit but around a whole new level, never to go back down to previous lows.  The odds are quite good that this is what has happened.

NOAA:

Not since records began has the region of the North Pacific Ocean been so warm for so long. The warm expanse has been characterized by sea surface temperatures as much as three degrees C (about 5.4 degrees F) higher than average, lasting for months, and appears on large- scale temperature maps as a red-orange mass of warm water many hundreds of miles across. Nick Bond of the  Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington earlier this summer nicknamed it ” the blob.”

Indeed, there are three warm zones, said Nate Mantua, leader of the landscape ecology team at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center: The big blob dominating the Gulf of Alaska, a more recent expanse of exceptionally warm water in the Bering Sea and one that emerged off Southern California earlier this year. One exception to the warmth is a narrow strip of cold water along the Pacific Northwest Coast fed by upwelling from the deep ocean.

The situation does not match recognized patterns in ocean conditions such as  El Niño Southern Oscillation or Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which are known to affect marine food webs. “It’s a strange and mixed bag out there,” Mantua said.

One possibility is that the PDO, a long-lived El Niño-like pattern, is shifting from an extended cold period dating to the late 1990s to a warm phase, said Toby Garfield, director of the Environmental Research Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Mantua said the PDO may have tipped into a warm state as early as January of this year.

3 Responses to “The Blob: Pacific Warm Patch Baffles Scientists”


  1. In the essay, Sinclair quotes Trenberth:

    Instead of thinking of global warming as providing a steady relentless climb in global temperatures, one should think of it more as an up staircase. So we may well have gone up the next step, and then we vary up and down a bit but around a whole new level, never to go back down to previous lows. The odds are quite good that this is what has happened.

    Actually the most recent “step” has been a bit more extreme than that.

    Look at NASA GISS annual land and sea:

    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

    … we find that pre-1998 had a maximum annual (Jan-Dec) temperature anomaly of 0.45°C. Now 1999 and technically 2000 are both still part of the 20th Century, each with annual temperature anomaly of 0.40°C. post-2000 had a minimum annual temperature anomaly of 0.49°C. As such, other than the super El Niño year of 1998, the hottest year of the 20th century was colder than the coldest year of the 21st century.

    Now El Niño years are generally especially warm years where heat that had been stored in the oceans is released to the atmosphere. Super El Niño years are extreme instances of this, so it is no surprise that a record global temperature was set during a super El Niño year. Likewise, every record global temperature that has since been set was during an El Niño year, that is, until 2014, a neutral year.

    A neutral year breaking a the most recent global surface temperature record in a string of global surface temperature records is indicative of just how rapidly the planet is warming. Given that 2015 is an El Niño year, it is likely that we will set a new record this year.


  2. […] Seattle Times: A gargantuan blob of warm water that’s been parked off the West Coast for 18 months is part of a larger pattern that helps explain California’s drought, Washington’s snow-starved ski…  […]

  3. climatebob Says:

    Whatever is going on in the Pacific and what they call it, its hot and its not good news and it is part of global warming. The big action is in the oceans and and we know very little about them. http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/blog/-gulf-stream-slowing-and-sea-level-rise


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