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'The Blob' Leaves US with Weird Weather, Say Experts

Apr 10, 2015 04:00 PM EDT
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It's no secret that North America has seen some pretty odd weather recently. No, it's not nearly as disastrous as some excitable folks on Twitter make it out to be, but it is odd enough for the NOAA and meteorological associations to take notice. Now new research has revealed that a natural phenomenon called "The Blob" might be a primary cause behind this weird weather.

"In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn't cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year," Nick Bond, a climate scientist at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, with the University of Washington (UW) and the NOAA, explained in a statement.

Bond started calling this mass "The Blob," just last June, after it refused to dissipate even months after it was first noticed. And just like its horror movie namesake, The Blob even started to grow, reaching 1,000 miles in each direction and 300 feet deep. At the time, it was suggested that this unusual patch of warm water was functioning almost like a localized El Niño - contributing to Washington state's mild winter in 2014 and signaling a warmer summer to come.

Now, 10 months later, The Blob is still around, just offshore from northern Mexico and reaching 1,000 miles up through Alaskan waters. Its waters remain about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal, regardless of the season.

However, Bond and his colleagues are arguing that this is not some obscure consequence of climate change. Instead, they say it is a natural abnormality that they are struggling to wrap their heads around.

"It wasn't caused by global warming, but it's producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming." Bond added, explaining that the NOAA and UW are now looking to The Blob to help them better understand and predict the effects of future warming on a larger scale. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NOAA National Climate Data Center) The Blob, flatening itself against the West Coast, as seen earlier this week.

As things stand, the NOAA has acknowledged that the world as a whole is progressively warming, with ocean surface temperatures leading the way in this potentially harmful - and arguably unnatural - change.

"This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades," Bond added.

But if The Blob is not humanity's fault, what caused it?

To find the answer, Bond's joint research team looked to a persistent high-pressure ridge that caused a calmer ocean during the past two winters. Calmer water naturally takes longer to cool, as the very surface of a liquid can almost act as an insulator for what lies beneath. This is not all that different from when you blow on a bowl of hot soup. Without occasionally stirring the meal to ensure that warmer soup makes it to the surface, you'll be waiting all day.

The presence of a newly identified El Niño southern oscillation could also be what is helping keep The Blob around, as this natural phenomenon shifts new warm water in a north-eastward pattern across the globe.

So what is The Blob up to?

According to a study recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the joint research team determined that The Blob may be redirecting fish traffic, as it is packed with less nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean water. This could be disrupting the West Coast's delicate food webs, causing stunning school sightings in some unusual places.

Back in July, for instance, students from Scripps Institution of Oceanography on the Californian coast witnessed a massive anchovy school swim far closer to shore than normal. (Scroll to read on...)


[Credit: SIO / Julia Fiedler, Sean Crosby and Bonnie Ludka.]

"This anchovy phenomenon hasn't been seen by Scripps scientists for more than 30 years," the institute later reported on its Facebook page, admitting that they'd probably never figure out the cause for why it happened.

The authors of the study added that this food web disruption could even explain for the starving sea lion pups that are washing up on Californian beaches, and the mass deaths of West Coast seabirds.

But The Blob's impacts are not just felt over ocean waters. As air passes over warmer water and reaches the coast it brings more heat and less snow, which the paper shows helped cause historic drought conditions currently seen in California, Oregon, and Washington. That's a revelation that supports the NOAA's argument that the drought is a natural phenomenon unrelated to climate change.

Interestingly, The Blob's origins may also be causing some other crazy weather on a more global scale. A second report, also published in Geophysical Research Letters, details how changes in the northern Pacific Ocean sent unexpected atmospheric waves snaking across half the globe. This ransported more warm and dry air to North America's West Coast, even while the east was handed wet and cold storm conditions - a perfect recipe for the train of snow storms that was seen.

Past reports have reflected a similar understanding, where a warming Pacific Ocean - the result of climate change - can lead to far more snowstorms inbound for North America.

The author of this second study, UW atmospheric scientist Dennis Hartmann, added that these same patterns which gave birth to The Blob seem to have grown stronger since 1980. This overshadows and even counters the influences of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which traditionally maintains typical sea surface temperatures during the winter season.

"It's an interesting question if that's just natural variability happening or if there's something changing about how the Pacific Ocean behaves," Hartmann said. "I don't think we know the answer. Maybe it will go away quickly and we won't talk about it anymore, but if [The Blob] persists for a third year, then we'll know something really unusual is going on."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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