By Mara Welty
– “The Blob,” a warm patch of water that extends from Northern California to the Alaskan Coast has created abnormal weather conditions and continues to threaten marine ecosystems.
The Pacific northwestern sardine industry is dead. Ever since a warm patch of water, nicknamed ‘The Blob’, appeared along the coast in 2013, fisheries have been struggling to stay open after a disruption in the marine food web.
The zone of unusually warm water, extending 300 feet deep and stretching 2,000 miles, has entrenched the western coast of the United States. It originally formed in the Gulf of Alaska, spreading across the entirety of the northeast Pacific by the following summer. The anomalously warm water has persisted for several years and at varying levels of intensity.
The Blob is believed to be caused by high atmospheric pressure in the pacific, which created unusual weather patterns, according to Nick Bond, a research meteorologist and professor at the University of Washington. The high pressure of the air above the ocean blocked storms that typically travel across the Pacific, preventing the waters from cooling off as much as usual during the winter months. Since then, these weather patterns have continued to not only reinforce the warm area of water, but disperse it along the coast.
While similar warming events have occurred prior to this event, none have been quite as extreme in magnitude, specifically, in its effect on marine life.
A DWINDLING POPULATION
Specifically, sardines have nearly vacated the northern coast of California. In years since the emergence of the Blob, sardine fisheries in Monterey Bay have closed.
The fish are are now migrating northward toward Washington, forcing fishing councils to increase legal restrictions in areas where sardines are scarce. “What you have now is this kind of displacement, where you get a mix-match of where the fishing fleet might be and where the fish are,” said Hazen.
The decline is the worst it has been since the infamous collapse of the sardine industry in the mid-20th century. Although sardines are historically known as species that tend to boom and bust, the current scarcity is believed to be related to the warming of waters near the coast due to the Blob. Prior to the sardine decline, sardines contributed more than $8 million to Oregon’s economy. The fish are typically caught between July and October when sardines are most nutritious prevalent.
The spring of this year marked a two-year long federal shutdown of west coast sardine fisheries, whose rules require the cease of sardine fishing once the adult stock drops below 150,000 metric tons. In April, it was estimated that there were fewer than 65,000 metric tons of adult sardines in the Pacific. Fisherman are now lobbying for fishing bans to revive their fisheries; however, they expect to wait more than a decade before the sardine fishing industry is revived.
An international conservation group, Oceana is pushing for new measures that would prompt a fishing ban once sardine populations dropped below 640,000 metric tons. They are also lobbying to prohibit the harvesting of more than 15 percent of the adult sardine population; the previous limit was set at 28 percent.
AN ALTERED ECOSYSTEM
Sardines aren’t the only marine species whose lifestyles are being disrupted by the warm blob looming in the ocean. The Blob has caused a fairly dramatic shift in the structure of the marine ecosystem. The warm waters now favor species at the bottom of the food chain. Particularly, the warm conditions of the Blob have cultivated almost ideal conditions for toxic algal blooms, also known as red tides, along the western pacific coast. The bloom stretches roughly 40 miles and is 650 feet deep in some places. In 2014, Dungeness crab fisheries, the most valuable commercial fishery along the west coast, shut down as a result, as crabs who ingested the toxins were unfit for human consumption.
Sea birds, like Cassin’s auklet, have also fallen victim to the Blob. The auklet, with specific food needs, targets zooplankton that only exist in cold waters. Consequently, a massive die-off of the species followed the appearance of the Blob’s warm waters. Thousands of birds were found washed up on beaches, scattered along coasts ranging from northern Washington to northern California.
A DRESS REHEARSAL
Scientists are now trying to figure out how the Blob relates to climate change. While the formation of the Blob is credited to abnormal atmospheric shifts and the subsequent weather patterns, there remains disagreement about whether blob-like conditions are a result of climate change or a contributor to climate change.
Bond believes that the warming of the ocean in past years, due to climate change, set a baseline that was higher than usual, amplifying the intensity of the Blob. “You can think about the climate system as being kind of noisy,” said Bond. “There’s fluctuations up and down, in temperature and other things, and that recent fluctuation upwards was on top of the slow rising trend, increasing severity.”
During the winter of 2015/2016, a strong El Niño temporarily diffused the Blob, its brisk winds and high precipitation mixing and burying the warmer waters beneath the surface. Cooler waters remained— but the Blob still lurked beneath.
The reemergence of the Blob, reaffirms what many scientists like Bond believe, that the phenomenon may be a climate event that will endure for a couple years and is likely to re-occur.
“The patch of warm water has moved around over time and disappeared and then came back. It’s different in that it is constantly evolving,” said Phil Mote, a professor at Oregon State University with a discipline in Physics of Oceans and Atmospheres.
When the Blob initially appeared a few years ago, temperatures were unprecedented, 4.5 °F warmer than normal. However, temperatures don’t appear to be as high since its return.
“One of the really, I think, most critical and really interesting questions becomes whether the Blob or blob-like event might become more common given a long term warming trend,” Hazen said.
Despite its cause, however, the Blob is here and will most likely stay, for at least a few more years. But even if blob conditions dissipate completely, the rising sea temperatures will continue to rise as a result of climate change.
As Mote put it, “The ocean is expected to be that much warmer by the middle of the century, so this might be a kind of dress rehearsal for climate change.”