NASA: The Demise of “the Blob” – For Now
February 16, 2016
I interviewed a number of scientists for my video on the “Blob”, an area of anomalously warm water off the US Northwest coast, associated with extreme weather events and the “ridiculously resilient ridge” in the jet stream of the past few years.
The Blob is fading, a casualty of this year’s extreme el nino event – NASA interviewed Nick Bond, one of my sources for the video.
In the winter of 2013-14, an unusually strong and persistent ridge of atmospheric high pressure emerged in weather maps of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. The feature, which was so unrelenting that meteorologists took to calling it the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, weakened winds in the area enough that the normal wind-driven churning of the sea eased. Those winds usually promote upwelling, which brings deep, cool water up toward the surface; instead, the resilient ridge shut down the ocean circulation, leaving a large lens of unusually warm surface water in the northeastern Pacific.
At times, this patch of warm water seeped into the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and the coastal waters off Washington, Oregon, and California. In fact, many parts of the northeastern Pacific experienced the greatest sea surface temperature anomalies in the historical record. Scientists and journalists took to calling the patch of warm water “the Blob.” Nicholas Bond, a University of Washington meteorologist and the Washington state’s climatologist, coined the term in a June 2014 newsletter.
As unusually warm surface water sloshed around for months, the grim consequences began to ricochet through the marine food web. Microscopic phytoplankton thrive in cool waters, so the lack of upwelling water meant surface waters became increasingly starved of nutrients. With fewer phytoplankton, fish and other marine life began to suffer. Certain types of fish started avoiding the region altogether, and by 2015 record numbers of starving sea lions and fur seals were found stranded on California’s beaches. Meanwhile, the warm water also began to produce some strange weather in the western United States.
Thanks in part to the strong El Niño in the equatorial Pacific, the Blob has finally broken up. Beginning in November 2015, strong winds blowing south from Alaska began to pick up, and sea surface temperatures in the northeastern Pacific began to cool.
Data collected by the U.S. Navy’s WindSAT instrument on the Coriolis satellite and the AMSR2 instrument on Japan’s GCOM-W satellite bear this out. The maps above show sea surface temperature anomalies in the Pacific in July 2015 (top) and January 2016 (bottom). The maps do not depict absolute temperatures; instead, they show how much above (red) or below (blue) water temperatures were compared to the average from 2003 to 2012. The maps were built with data from the Microwave Optimally Interpolated SST product, a NASA-supported effort at Remote Sensing Systems.
In July 2015, temperatures were unusually warm across a large swath from the Gulf of Alaska to the California coast. By January 2016, more seasonable temperatures had returned. The development came as no surprise to weather watchers. In September 2015, Clifford Mass, a University of Washington atmospheric scientist, explained in his blog that El Niño generally brings lower-than-normal sea surface pressures to the eastern Pacific—the opposite of the systems that sustained the blob. By mid-December 2015, Mass declared that the blob was dead.
Remnants of the warm water patch still persist. “There are significant temperature anomalies extending down to a depth of about 300 meters. So while the weather patterns the past few months have not been that favorable to warming, it will take a while for all of the accumulated heat to go away,” explained Bond. That means impacts on marine life and on weather in the Pacific Northwest could linger, though Bond does not think the blob will return in the near term.
Here the Washington Post follows up on reports that “the Blob” favored development of large blooms of toxic algae that devastated sea life. Will be interesting to track these developments to decide on connection between “the Blob”, jetstream irregularities, and toxic algae blooms.
New research is shedding light on how far toxic algae blooms have spread in Alaska, and surprised scientists are saying this is just the beginning.
A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest fisheries center found domoic acid and saxitoxin – algae-produced neurotoxins that are deadly in high doses — in 13 marine mammal species across Alaska, including as far north as the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Researchers say the study is just the latest piece of evidence that warming ocean temperatures are allowing these blooms to stretch into Arctic ecosystems, threatening marine life and the communities who rely on the sea to survive.
“The waters are warming, the sea ice is melting, and we are getting more light in those waters,” said Kathi Lefebvre, NOAA Fisheries research scientist. “Those conditions, without a doubt, are more favorable for algal growth. With that comes harmful algae.”
The study, which analyzed more than 900 samples taken from stranded or harvested marine mammals in Alaska between 2004 and 2013, found algal toxins in all species sampled, including bowhead whales, fur seals and sea otters.
“We were surprised,” Lefebvre said. “We did not expect these toxins to be present in the food web in high enough levels to be detected in these predators.”
“There seems to be a potential risk for marine mammal health,” she added. “Then there’s also a seafood security risk, in that these communities rely on and depend on these animals for food.”
“I think that’s going to have a huge impact on the Native communities and coastal communities in Alaska,” said Bruce Wright, senior scientist for the Aleutian and Pribilof Island Association, the federally recognized tribal organization of Alaska’s indigenous Aleut citizens. “I think that we’re going to see a number of shifts in our ecosystem as a consequence of warming, and I think some species will be displaced by other species, and others will disappear. There [are] going to be consequences and people are going to have to adapt.”
NOAA’s new study, released last week, comes after months of strange marine life die offs in Alaska. Last year, NOAA declared the deaths of more than 30 whales in the Gulf of Alaska to be an unusual mortality event. Just last month, thousands of dead birds began washing ashore in Prince William Sound.
“I’m pretty sure that’s associated with these algal blooms,” Wright said of the bird die offs and other events. Toxic algal blooms in the region, particularly 2015’s, likely wipe out entire parts of the lower food chain, he added, the effects of which reverberate through the ecosystem.
A massive toxic algal bloom, believed the largest ever recorded, reaped havoc in the Pacific in 2015. Stretching from southern California north to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, it prompted the closure of recreational and commercial fisheries across the American and Canadian coastlines.
“It really does point out that there is a need for more monitoring,” Lefebvre said.
Increasingly warm waters in the north Pacific are believed to be behind other strange disease outbreaks as well. A recent study from the University of Puget Sound found that warmer waters in 2014 contributed to an epidemic of sea star wasting disease in the North Pacific, which decimated starfish populations in the north Pacific.
In the original movie, “The Blob”, the ravenous amoeba was put to rest in cold arctic regions, where it was hoped freezing temperatures would keep it at bay for eons. In a changing world, it seems likely that blob could awaken again and again..