We’d waited patiently during the first week of last June for the day to arrive. Steady, freezing rain had thwarted any attempt for Carl Donohue and me to kayak to the Tyndall Glacier located at the rear of the Taan Fjord inside Icy Bay, part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska.
Home to the world’s largest coastal mountain range — the St. Elias Mountains — inside America’s largest national park, the base of the mountains is fortified by glaciers named Yahtzee, Guyot and Tyndall, but like most glaciers they’re receding at a rapid rate. Glaciers melting at an accelerated pace isn’t anything new, but the “Warm Blob”, a unique warm-weather anomaly with a stranglehold on the Pacific Ocean since late 2013, it has enhanced the acceleration of glacier melt in the Gulf of Alaska.
Back in the mid to late 1770s, during his third voyage, British explorer Capt. James Cook sailed past Icy Bay when the three glaciers extended out to the mouth, blocking its entrance. Today those glaciers have receded 16 miles to the base of the mountains.
On a day when the weather broke we paddled for the Tyndall Glacier. After hours of squeezing past icebergs creaking and cracking, we reached the calving glacier. Slouching in our kayaks, we listened to the daunting, repetitive sounds of ice breaking off inside the glacier. It sounded like cannon blasts.
Then, a huge semi-truck chunk of ice broke free 200 feet up at the top of the glacier. We both sat up and braced ourselves for an oncoming 3-foot wave choked in floating ice. The emerald-green wave barely capped and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. With a stubborn weather anomaly like the Warm Blob consuming most of the Pacific Ocean, however, expect the world’s largest ocean to remain out of whack at least through the winter.
Carl Donohue kayaking to the Tyndall Glacier located at the rear of the Taan Fjord inside Icy Bay, part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska. Photo by: Chuck Graham
Picking up steam
The Warm Blob. When I first heard of the unusual mass of warm water it sounded to me like a corny old science-fiction thriller from the 1960s. Yet it is the real deal and it has proven to be a powerful weather anomaly that has grown exponentially since it was first detected in late 2013.
Initially discovered by Nicholas Bond, a climate scientist for the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean of the University of Washington, the Warm Blob was first described as being 500 miles wide and 300 feet deep in the northeastern Pacific in the Gulf of Alaska.
Bond began paying attention to the warm-water anomalies of the Pacific Northwest during the winter of 2013-14. By June 2014, the Warm Blob had doubled in size. It stretched 1,000 miles long and 1,000 miles wide and maintained its 300-foot depth. Today it has exploded and its girth reaches 2,000 miles long, from Alaska all the way down to Baja California.
Today the Warm Blob encompasses most of the Pacific with three distinct patches warming water temperatures up and down the coast. The densest blob takes up the entire Bering Sea. The next one spreads across the Pacific Northwest, and the third hugs the Southern California Coast and Baja California, which according to Bond, became prominent during the summer of 2014.
“It (the Warm Blob) has gone up and down in terms of its size and intensity since early 2014,” said Bond, who named the warm water anomaly the Warm Blob when he detected it in 2013. “Now, basically the entire northeastern Pacific is much warmer than normal, with hot spots west of the Pacific Northwest, Southern California and Baja California.”
Weather or not
When I first learned about the Warm Blob, my initial thought was that it was directly related to El Niño. I was in the Galapagos Islands in late 1997, during the last noteworthy El Niño. Aquatic species there, like marine iguanas, boobies, sea lions, etc., were struggling. With all predictions pointing toward another significant El Niño event for late 2015-16, I was interested to know if a Warm Blob preceded the El Niño of 1997-98.
“The Warm Blob is not due to El Niño,” according to Bond. “It is linked to a weather pattern that was forced by warm water and large, long-living clusters of thunderstorms in the far western tropical Pacific near New Guinea. A Warm Blob definitely did not lead up to the 1997 – 98 El Niño.”
The immediate cause of the massive weather anomaly was lower-than-normal heat loss from the ocean to the atmosphere, with water circulation slowing down and resulting in a stagnant upper layer of water.
This helps explain the persistent high pressure we’ve experienced since at least the spring of 2014. Winter storms and large northwest wind events have been sparse, which means there isn’t much upwelling in the Santa Barbara Channel to bring that cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface.
The Pacific Northwest has been experiencing the same effects and Bond said it brought on an unusually scorching summer in 2014. He also said the warmer than normal waters in the north Pacific in Alaska have helped warm low-level air temperatures in adjoining coastal regions.
“While not playing a primary role, the Warm Blob has helped make it relatively warm and hence contributed to an enhanced rate of melting of the glaciers,” said Bond. “It does bear mentioning that the melting has been going on for some time, that is, before the Warm Blob reared its ugly head.”
Like Bond, Nate Mantua has been tracking the Warm Blob since late 2013. He is a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California. He describes the Warm Blob as “the biggest little event,” in that much of his work focuses on much larger-scale features of climate variability like El Niño, the Pacific decadal oscillation and long-term temperature trends and variations for the entire northeast Pacific.
He believes the Warm Blob has been extreme for how warm ocean temperatures have stayed for nearly two years now, but says it has happened in a relatively small region.
“This extra-warm patch of the northeast Pacific Ocean has been over 1,000 miles across,” he said, “but in terms of climate patterns that is relatively small.”
Warm water critters
Channel 72 on my VHF radio was spewing out consistent chatter concerning the whereabouts of warm-water fish species thriving in Southern California’s waters. Driven westward by the Warm Blob, dorado, marlin, yellowtail, hammerheads and other tropical species have made fishermen very happy the past several months.
Another interesting species that appeared in huge numbers this past summer at the Channel Islands National Park, particularly Santa Cruz Island, was Pleuroncodes planipes, better known as the pelagic red crab or tuna crab.
A California sea lion pup abandoned,
tired and hungry on Santa Cruz Island,
the result of sea lion mothers having to swim farther to find food.
Looking more like a small lobster or crayfish than a crab, it began appearing in July. Thousands upon thousands would swim through the crystal-clear waters along the southeast end of Santa Cruz and cling to the canopy of giant bladder kelp prevalent around the islands. There were several mass die-offs, but then another huge wave of them appeared over and over again. With each appearance, great numbers of western gulls descended on the bright-red crabs, satiating the year-round residents of the Channel Islands. Resident ravens enjoyed them as well, once the red crabs beached themselves. Pelagic red crabs typically live on the continental shelf west of Mexico, and are usually found southwest of San Diego.
A Pelagic red crab found on the shore of the Channel Islands.
Thousands have washed up along the Southern California coast
as a side effect of the Warm Blob.
“I believe that the more direct cause for the Southern California and Baja California warming is weaker-than-normal winds from the north, and stronger-than-normal winds from the south/southwest pushing warm-water species into Southern California,” said Mantua, “These unusual wind patterns may be related to the same unusually strong ridge of high pressure that has persisted for most of the last two years off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.”
The persistent warm waters are also directly related to record numbers of California sea lion pups abandoned off Southern California waters. This past spring and early summer saw over 3,000 sea lion pups rescued along the mainland from northern Santa Barbara down to San Diego. If they were lucky a beach walker spotted them and called a local marine mammal rescue facility for pickup and rehabilitation.
When the Warm Blob reached Southern California waters it forced species of baitfish to deeper, colder waters, putting more stress on female sea lions to locate food sources. The result saw mothers searching farther away than normal, thus leaving their pups behind to fend for themselves.
“Warmer waters have favored subtropical species,” said Bond, “but it has also meant less of the favored prey items for sea lions.”
Subtropical avian species have also traveled westward as warm ocean currents persist. Tropic birds and brown boobies have been seen in the Santa Barbara Channel and roosting on the end of the arch of Anacapa Island and the more remote Sutil Island just south of Santa Barbara Island.
“Indeed, the top predators such as seabirds and marine mammals are also responding to the ocean conditions,” he said.
Locally ocean temperatures have hovered in the upper 60s and into the low 70s for much of the summer and into the first part of fall. According to Bond, the last time the ocean was this warm for this long was in 1958.
On the home front
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I recently had a difficult time sleeping while camping in the Scorpion Canyon Campground near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. It was the middle of the night and I had already wadded up my sleeping bag and stuffed it in the corner of my two-person tent. The craggy canyon was eerily silent with schools back in session. The heat was stifling; the air was thick and still with high humidity hanging tough over the canyon like a persistent cloud cover.
I got out of my tent and immediately headed for the beach. An island fox scurried in front of me. I walked straight for the 70-degree-plus water and dove in, surrounded in brilliant bioluminescence. I then sat there in chest-deep water until I got cold, soaking in the effects of the Warm Blob.
It’s been hot and humid for months. The sticky weather has been longer-lasting than one would expect. So how long must we endure the Warm Blob, especially locally?
Both Bond and Mantua agree that the warm air and ocean temps we’ve been experiencing will continue to stay warmer than normal, but will drop some with seasonal changes looming on the horizon.
Mantua was convinced the Warm Blob would persist and possibly induce more moisture to Ventura County heading into the fall.
“This region is likely to continue having humidity and warmer-than-average nighttime temperatures because of the warm ocean temperatures that exist off the Southern California coast,” explained Mantua. “The vast expanse of warm ocean temperatures off Baja and Southern California may also favor more chances for tropical moisture associated with tropical storms and hurricanes to drift into your neighborhood, so perhaps more rain will find its way this fall than in an average year.”
Bond wasn’t as specific about his predictions. His scope was more far-reaching than focused on a specific region.
“The climate models used for seasonal weather predictions are emphatic in keeping the waters along the West Coast of North America warmer than normal into the spring of 2016,” he said. “The waters will cool off to a certain extent due to the usual seasonal cycle, but should remain above normal in temperature. After that, it all depends on the weather and wind patterns, and we do not have much of a clue about what next summer will bring.”
Editor’s note: The Warm Blob is the first story in a two part series about unusual natural occurrences that impact our region. The second story, which will come out next week, will be on the “Godzilla” El Niño.