Ocean temperatures have skyrocketed in the northeast Pacific, ushering in conditions reminiscent of 2015. In other words, the Blob is back, and it could spell trouble for wildlife and fisheries from Alaska to California, according to data scientists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released on Thursday.
This year’s Blob is the second-largest marine heat wave recorded in the Pacific in at least the last 40 years, covering 4 million square miles. The abnormally warm waters extend from Alaska to Canada and as far west as Hawaii. That includes a large swath of water that’s more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than normal for this time of year.
“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA, said in the statement, referring to the 2015 Blob. “Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.”
The Blob—a term coined by Washington state climatologist Nick Bond during the 2015 heat wave—emerged quickly in the U.S. summer thanks to a ridge of high pressure parked over the region that kept skies largely sunny and, more importantly, slowed winds that normally churn up the ocean. That churn usually pushes warm surface waters around and allows cool, nutrient-rich water from below to rise and take its place.
Without that mixing, surface heat quickly built up. And it without the aforementioned nutrients from the cooler water below the surface, the heat wave has disrupted the food chain. With less food for marine life, animals have been forced to go further afield or perish. That, in turn, can have a huge knock-on effect on the people whose livelihoods depend on the ocean’s health. For example, fisheries managers expected 4.8 million salmon to spawn up British Columbia’s Fraser River, but only 628,000 fish showed up. As a result, commercial fishing operations have shut down, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada has even restricted fishing rights for First Nations.
The Blob could dissipate if weather patterns shift in the coming months and storms once again churn the waters of the Pacific. But if the Blob persists, the impacts could become more dire. In 2015, malnourished sea lion pups washed up on shore in California due to the lack of food, and sea stars wasted away in Washington. That Blob also fuelled a harmful algae bloom that infected Dungeness crabs with a harmful neurotoxin, forcing the entire crab season to go belly up. Between that and holdover impacts in 2016, the crabbing economy in California took a $US110 ($161) million hit—to say nothing of the crabs themselves.
There are indications the first go-round of the Blob has some natural roots tied to a decades-long climate swing known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. But climate change is also playing a role in most planetary heat waves. And research published just last month shows that what researchers dubbed “surprise” oceanic heat waves—heat waves well outside the norm of the preceding 30 years—have become more common. Hot surprises have accelerated in the Pacific since 2010, and the latest Blob is a prime example of that.
“We learned with ‘the Blob’ and similar events worldwide that what used to be unexpected is becoming more common,” Cisco Werner, NOAA Fisheries Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor, said in a statement.
The revenues California crabbers lost due to the 20105 Blob led them to sue 30 major oil companies in late 2018 for their role in the climate crisis. That made them the first major industry to sue Big Oil for its role in climate change. If this year’s Blob screws up their livelihoods, their case could be even stronger.