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The Blob Is Back

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  • The Blob Is Back

    SF Chronicle's Tara Guggin Reports:

    A marine heat wave that has spiked sea surface temperatures off the Oregon and Washington coast is moving into California waters. If it continues south, there is a chance it could raise temperatures along the chilly Bay Area coast within weeks, according to federal oceanographers.

    The intense heat wave, which had lingered offshore since May, hit the Oregon and Washington coast recently, raising temperatures 7 to 9 degrees above normal, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday. Since then, it has moved into Northern California about as far south as Eureka in Humboldt County and is getting closer to Mendocino County.

    Based on its current rate of expansion and forecasted wind patterns, it’s very possible more of California’s waters will warm in the next week or two, said Andrew Leising, a research oceanographer at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

    “It’s getting hotter, it’s covering more of the coastline and it’s expanding,” Leising said of the marine heat wave, which he said is among the top 20 most severe he has seen in this part of the Pacific.

    Marine heat waves along the Oregon and Washington coast have become standard in recent summers, and a similar one crept into Northern California waters last July. The difference is that this one is taking place during a developing El Ni?o, which could possibly extend it, he said.

    “We’ve got this really strong heat wave that’s looming offshore and we’ve got the El Ni?o brewing,” he said. “It is possible that the forces that are driving El Ni?o could also force this heat wave that’s out there right now to stick around more.”

    Global sea surface temperatures hit unprecedented heights this spring and summer, breaking a record average of nearly 70 degrees in April, dipping slightly, and reaching that temperature again last week. Attributed to human-caused climate change with a possible boost from El Ni?o (and other potential factors), the warming water is causing Florida’s coral reefs to bleach.

    “The marine heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is among the largest contiguous areas in the world experiencing such unusual conditions,” said Henry Ruhl, director of the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

    Though sea surface temperature maps show marine heat waves in blazing red, that doesn’t mean the water is red-hot. It just means the temperatures are higher than usual for this time of year. The difference might not be noticeable to swimmers and surfers, and satellites aren’t always great at reading temperatures right at shore.

    Much of the California coast is usually kept cool by upwelling, when winds bring cold, nutrient-rich water from the sea floor to the ocean surface during spring and summer. But upwelling can decrease during El Ni?o years, and some oceanographers expect ocean temperatures along the coast to increase by fall.

    If the heat wave does expand farther south and lingers for a while, it could wreak havoc on the ecosystem and on fisheries, Leising said.

    He noted that the most recent time a marine heat wave — which was nicknamed “the blob” and hit the entire West Coast from Alaska to Baja, Mexico — coincided with an El Ni?o was 2014-2015, when warmer waters helped create a long-lasting algae bloom that disrupted the commercial Dungeness crab fishery and killed marine mammals. Overall, the warmer water decreased the amount of food at the bottom of the food chain, impacting seabird and other animal populations.

    “The longer you have the animals exposed to heat the worse it is for them,” Leising said.


    The California Current Marine Heatwave Tracker - Blobtracker

    What is a marine heatwave?

    Marine heatwaves, or MHWs, occur when ocean temperatures are much warmer than usual for an extended period of time; they are specifically defined by the difference between the current temperature and the expected temperature for a specific location and time of year [1]. MHWs are a growing field of study worldwide because of their effects on ecosystem structure, biodiversity, and regional economies.

    In 2014 a large MHW was identified as it began dominating the northeast Pacific Ocean. Eventually known as “The Blob” [2] (Fig. 3A.), this basin-scale MHW was unique in the history of monitoring in the California Current, and persisted until mid-2016. Researchers documented many ecological effects associated with “The Blob”, including unprecedented harmful algal blooms, shifting distributions of marine life, and changes in the marine food web [3].

    Large marine heatwaves have occurred each of the last four years (2019 - 2022), all typically beginning during the spring in the far offshore region of the open North Pacific, impacting the US west coast during the fall, and finally terminating during late winter. These features were the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 4th largest heatwaves, respectively, on record for the eastern North Pacific since monitoring began in 1982 (calculated only within the analyzed region shown in Fig. 2; note some of these heatwaves were likely larger as they extended beyond the borders of this prescribed region at various times). Animations of recent years' heatwaves can be found here..

    To further investigate past MHW events, access this table of detailed information (i.e., size, duration, distance from shore) or an archive of past yearly animations.

    What are the latest conditions?
    (last updated 08 August 2023)

    We are currently tracking marine heatwave (MHW) NEP23A, that formed in mid May 2023 and continues through this current update. NEP23A has been increasing in size during the past months, and has now reached the Canadian and US west coasts (Fig. 1 and 2). This large heatwave formed in the same region where the previous MHW (NEP22A) dissipated below our area tracking threshold only a few days before this new heatwave arose. Thus, although we denote NEP23A as a “new” heatwave, it is an extension of the previous event because it formed in a region where ocean surface temperatures were already elevated above normal, but just below our MHW thresholds. Warming off the coast of OR and WA has reached at least 4?C above normal (defined as the average temperature at a specific location on this date), with the northern CA coast also seeing some increased warming. *(Note that at the time of this update, parts of NEP23A exceed the scale on Fig. 1, with temperatures reaching 5?C above normal.)

    The current heatwave forecast suggests NEP2023A will continue in the offshore waters through this summer, with an increased risk of coastal warming in the spring of 2024. Additionally, we are currently in an “El Ni?o advisory” status, with a greater than 90% chance that El Ni?o will persist through the Northern Hemisphere winter (see
    El Ni?o combined with the current large offshore marine heatwave, may indicate the system is heading towards conditions similar to that encountered in 2014-2015, the last period during which we had a similar confluence of these two extremes. However, it is also possible that the heatwave may follow the previous pattern of the previous 4 years, which would instead see a weakening of the heatwave and recession further offshore during Oct-Nov. If that is the case, then we expect to see a return to cooler coastal temperatures until the El Ni?o brings back warmer coastal conditions in the early spring. We will continue to monitor the area, duration, and coastal proximity of surface water temperatures for these features in the northeast Pacific and communicate with other researchers and policy-makers to understand the array of possible west coast impacts.

    Animations and images of past years' developing heatwaves can be found here: NEP22A animation; previous archived animations.

    View new and ongoing analyses highlighting regional conditions associated with individual west coast National Marine Sanctuaries and states (Washington, Oregon, and northern, central, and southern California).

    What is the MHW Tracker (aka "Blobtracker")?

    Developed by oceanographers from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center as an experimental tool for natural resource managers, the California Current MHW Tracker (aka “Blobtracker”) is a program designed to describe and thereby provide historical context for current and past large marine heatwaves. It also produces a range of indices that could help forecast or predict future MHWs expected to impact our coast.

    Because “The Blob” dramatically affected natural resources, including economically valuable fisheries, predictive forecasts will help natural resource managers, businesses, and coastal communities anticipate changes and mitigate possible damages in the future.

    The California Current MHW Tracker automatically analyzes sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTa) from 1982- present, with a particular focus on detecting the presence of significant ”Blob-Class” events. Sea surface temperature (SST) data were obtained from a variety of different platforms (satellites, ships, buoys) on a regular global grid at a resolution of 1/4?, as provided by NOAA’s OISST program.

    Here, we define “Blob-Class” MHWs based on their strength (>1.29 times the standard deviation of the SSTa field; e.g., the top 90% of the data), along with their areal extent (area > 400,000 km?, which includes the top 20% of all heatwaves recorded in this region since 1982). The “Blobtracker” program groups all contiguous pixels satisfying the strength threshold, and then tracks those contiguous regions over time, as long as they continue to satisfy the area threshold and spatially overlap at least part of a similar feature from the day before. This allows the tracking and classification of these large marine heatwaves as they evolve and move around the north Pacific, similar to how one would track large storms or hurricanes. We have adopted a naming convention for these tracked heatwaves of giving them a number based on the year of their first crossing the area threshold, and a letter corresponding to the order in which they arise each year (e.g. the second “Blob-Class” heatwave that arises in 2010, would be called NEP10b, with the NEP standing for Northeast Pacific). Besides tracking these large “Blob-Class” features, we also provide indices related to how much of the EEZ (Exclusive economic zone) of the US west coast is in heatwave status, by calculating the % total area within the EEZ exceeding the strength threshold, regardless of the area-tracking threshold (Fig. 4).

    What controls the presence of heatwaves near the coastline?
    For fisheries management purposes, the most important aspect of these heatwaves are whether they come into close contact with our coasts and within the EEZ, as these are the regions where the majority of our fisheries resources are based. Although local forces are important, the dominant feature which controls coastal water temperatures in the California Current system (CCS) is alongshore wind patterns. Because of the orientation of the US west coast coastline (predominantly N-S) and the general flow of the CCS (from north to south along the coast), and the effects of coriolis, our coast is heavily impacted by a process known as upwelling. Essentially, when wind blows from north towards the south along this coast, it causes an “upwelling” of deeper, colder, nutrient rich waters to rise to the surface, displacing warmer surface waters offshore. Vice versa, when winds are weak, or blow from south to north, this may shut off (termed upwelling “relaxation”), or even reverse upwelling (termed “downwelling”), which allows surface waters to warm, and/or offshore waters to advect towards the coast.

    Therefore, our working hypothesis is that much of the timing and occurrence of large marine heatwaves within the US west coast EEZ is related to changes in the winds driving upwelling. When upwelling winds weaken or reverse, coastal waters tend to warm. Further, when there are already large marine heatwaves in the offshore region, changes in wind direction and strength can lead to those features advecting into, or becoming contiguous with, warmed coastal waters during these upwelling “relaxation” or “downwelling” events if those events last for a significant period of time. Because of the presumed importance of these basin-scale winds driving upwelling patterns, which are in turn driven by basin-scale atmospheric pressure patterns (further described here), we have begun to closely monitor the wind and pressure patterns across this region, along with SSTa (Fig. 1).
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