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‘The Blob’ Disrupts What We Think We Know About Climate Change, Oceans Scientist Says

Deep in the northeast Pacific Ocean, The Blob is acting strangely.

When the abnormally warm patch of water first appeared in 2013, fascinated scientists watched disrupted weather patterns, from drought in California to almost snowless winters in Alaska and record cold winters in the northeast.

The anomalously warm water, with temperatures three degrees Centigrade above normal, was nicknamed The Blob by U.S climatologist Nick Bond. It stretched over one million square kilometres of the Gulf of Alaska — more than the surface area of B.C. and Alberta combined — stretching down 100-metres into the ocean.

And, over the next two years that patch of water radically affected marine life from herring to whales.

Without the welling-up of cold, nutrient-rich water, there was a dearth of krill, zooplankton and copepods that feed herring, salmon and other species.

“The fish out there are malnourished, the whole ecosystem is malnourished,” said Richard Dewey, associate director for science with Ocean Networks Canada, speaking at Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney on Thursday.

A change of three degrees is an “extraordinary deviation — something you would expect to happen once in a millennium,” he said.

Pink salmon returned last year, after two years in the ocean, weighing about half their usual weight, sea lion pups, seabirds and baleen whales had difficulty finding adequate food, but jellyfish thrived.

Now, after more than two years of disruption to marine ecosystems, it looks as if The Blob is dissipating, said Dewey, who has studied the phenomenon since it appeared.

Cold winter storms, that have been absent for almost three years allowing the anomaly to develop, swept across the Gulf of Alaska in November and December, finally dispersing the warm surface waters.

But, as oceanographers try to predict what will happen next, Dewey believes it is too early to pronounce the death of The Blob.

The Blob as captured in NOAA imaging in 2014. 

“It’s not dead yet. I think there’s a lot of heat out there, deep down,” he said.

“I am hedging my bets. . .  I think it is still down there.”

Dewey, who got together with other scientists in Seattle this month to look at circumstances around the birth of The Blob and what might be expected next, believes similar events are likely to happen in the future.

“Maybe it is going to happen now every 10 years, or maybe every 20 years and that will be a major change,” he said.

Among other effects is the reduced absorption of carbon dioxide by a warm ocean, opposed to a cold ocean.

“Cold water absorbs CO2 and warm water puts it back into the atmosphere. The Blob has stopped a considerable amount of CO2 from being absorbed by the ocean and that accelerates global warming,” said Dewey, who estimates that, over two years, the rate of CO2 absorbed by the ocean has been reduced by five per cent because of The Blob.

The cause of The Blob was not an accumulation of warm water, but a lack of cooling because of a weak Aleutian low — the low pressure system with winds that usually mix the surface water of the north Pacific with the cold, nutrient-rich water from below — Dewey explained.

In September 2012, after massive cyclones, there was the lowest sea ice pack ever recorded in the Arctic and, with more ocean exposed, heat was absorbed into the Arctic Ocean.

“It delayed the freezing of the Arctic. The Arctic vortex was very weak and small, so there was no northern boundary to the jet stream and [that allows] the jet stream to go into huge meanders,” Dewey said.

And a wandering jet stream means wacky weather.

“The Blob is not driving the weather, the weather is driving The Blob,” Dewey said.

The first group to notice that something odd was happening in 2013 were surfers off Jordan River, who experienced poor surfing conditions, he said.

Next were the skiers and operators of ski resorts, who in 2013/14 were painfully aware that conditions were not normal. In some areas, runs or even entire resorts closed because of lack of snow.

Then there were the gardeners in areas such as Vancouver Island who were picking garden-ripened tomatoes from June until November 2014 and mowing their lawns from December until February.

So, with The Blob’s power, at least temporarily, dissipating, the question for many is what happens next and whether the last two years are a symptom of climate change.

It could be an indication of what climate change will look like, with large-scale shifts in weather patterns, said Dewey, pointing out that The Blob was not anticipated by climatologists because it did not fit into existing climate models.

“Climate change may look like a whole new model we haven’t seen before,” Dewey said.

“It could be we’re getting a glimpse into what the future might hold.”

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We hear it time and time again:
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Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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