Apocalyptic ash and smoke cloud from the Sand Fire in July as seen from a residential street in Santa Clarita.

Apocalyptic ash and smoke cloud from the Sand Fire in July as seen from a residential street in Santa Clarita.

THE BLOB IS BACK!

In l958 a cheesy science-fiction movie scared and amused audiences across the nation. Called The Blob, it featured future superstar Steven McQueen in his first lead role. The poster had the tagline: “Indescribable! Indestructible! Nothing can stop it!”

The movie featured a mysterious mass that emerged from a meteorite and grew larger and larger with every human and object it overwhelmed, ultimately threatening to consume an entire town.

Fast forward to 2013 when climatologist Nicholas Bond was struck by the persistence of an extraordinarily large, warm circular mass of ocean water off Washington and the west coast of Canada. He gave this mass a popular name that has stuck — “The Blob.”

“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014, we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool down as much as it usually did, and by the spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen for that time of year,” said Bond, the state climatologist of Washington.

The Blob, which reached north into the Gulf of Alaska, was 1,000 miles across, 300 feet deep and as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for ocean waters in the area. Arising from a marine heat wave that moved slowly across the Pacific in 2013, The Blob’s heat caused horror-movie-style havoc across the spectrum of marine life, from the tiniest of phytoplankton to the largest of mammals, including a mass death of whales in the Gulf of Alaska.

Nate Mantua, a scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Santa Cruz who began his career studying warming trends in the Pacific to better understand what was happening to oceangoing fish, sees the continent-sized “marine heat wave” that spread slowly across the Pacific from the Indonesian seas as a tremendous issue. 

“I think this is the largest ecological event of our lifetimes,” he said. “It’s bigger than the l982-l983 El Niño, bigger than the l997-l998 El Niño [which brought huge flooding to Southern California].”

But unlike the dramatic weather that powered past El Niños, The Blob is thought by many climatologists to be part of a larger phenomenon that creates exactly the opposite condition in California — drought. It coincides with a strangely big and persistent ridge of high pressure in the atmosphere over the North Pacific that in the last three years has repeatedly formed and diverted storms and cooling winds away from California, keeping Ventura County and Southern California in drought.

Feeling the underwater heat

Climate scientist Daniel Swain tweeted in October this image of The Blob, an extraordinarily large, warm circular mass of ocean water off Washington and the west coast of Canada up to the Gulf of Alaska.

Climate scientist Daniel Swain tweeted in October this image of The Blob, an extraordinarily large, warm circular mass of ocean water off Washington and the west coast of Canada up to the Gulf of Alaska.

The underwater heat wave has ruined the lives of countless sea creatures. Over 4,000 sea lions and seals were reported stranded or found dead along the California coast in 2015, according to a network of rescue groups overseen by NOAA. The sea lions had fed on bait fish that moved north in search of cooler waters, researchers believe, which left the sea lions and their pups to starve.

In another example of the impacts of the marine heat wave, the crab industry in California was shut down last year by the state’s Department of Public Health. Why? Because of a domoic acid — a neurotoxin — contamination caused by a massive undersea algae bloom, which last year extended from Southern California all the way to Alaska. That algae bloom can be traced to the same marine heat wave, according to a study by Mantua and a co-author published in July in Nature Climate Change.

It’s difficult to appreciate what oceanic changes mean for our wildlife and our climate. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, formerly of UC, Santa Barbara, who is at work on a book about the world history of fishing, said even catastrophic changes — which he sees happening in the ocean now — go unnoticed.

“We have no idea how serious the damage to the fisheries is; and the truth is, we don’t think about the ocean much at all,” he said. “It’s staggering, what’s happening out there. We’re in a changing world, and we don’t realize it. I worry about what it means for our children and grandchildren.”

Heat and fire in California

A look at maps published by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that Ventura County is at the epicenter of the worst drought in the nation. We live today in an “exceptional” dryness, according to measures of soil and plant moisture — the worst of the five categories of drought.

Not coincidentally, the millions of us living in Central California are at an elevated risk from wildfires.

Both the Sand Fire in the Santa Clarita area in July and the Blue Cut Fire in the Cajon Pass area in San Bernardino in August grew in size at an explosive rate. The Sand Fire burned for weeks, killing one resident trapped in a car, and the Blue Cut Fire near Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains grew from 5 acres on the morning of Aug. 16 to 30,000 acres by nightfall, consuming neighborhoods and forcing evacuations.

Mike Lindbery of the Ventura County Fire Department said that the drought has had a big impact on his agency this year already, although fortunately the county has not seen the enormous fires that Los Angeles and San Bernardino have faced. 

“We’ve fallen below the critical moisture level [in plants that are alive],” he said. “Plus, the proportion of dead plant materials to live plant materials in our forests has tilted to a much higher ratio than we’re comfortable with,” he said. “We’re seeing very rapid rates of spread in fires such as the Sand Fire.”

Last August the moisture levels in wild land plants were measured at 60 percent; this August they fell below 50 percent, the lowest on record.

When the land dries out, it and the atmosphere heat more quickly.southcoastwarmingsince1900

“When soil is wet when the sun’s energy hits, the energy goes into evaporating the water in the soil. That keeps temperatures, particularly daytime temperatures, cooler,” said Jake Crouch, a NOAA drought expert. “If soils are dry, the sun’s energy has no water to evaporate, and that energy increases the temperature of the earth’s surface.”

Lindbery had expressed concerns about firefighting in an era of explosive fires just before driving north to join the battle against the Soberanes Fire that ultimately consumed more than 132,000 acres, took almost three months to contain and cost more than $200 million to fight.

“If this drought continues we will see more [plant] death in the fuel beds and a higher propensity for larger fires,” Lindbery said. “We are not contemplating a change in policy regarding the public at this time, but we may see a more frequent initiation of evacuation orders. We do not want to put firefighters in the position of having to choose between saving property and saving lives.”

Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for the Los Padres National Forest, said that the drought is taking a heavy toll on the forests.

“After five years of persistent drought we’re seeing a number of impacts to trees,” he said. “In the lower elevations we’re seeing drought-stressed oak trees. Sometimes these trees survive by dropping branches in order to survive, and we have seen that in Ojai. In the higher elevations, in eastern Ventura County, we’re seeing entire stands of pines in the Mount Pinos area unable to defend themselves against bark beetle attacks.”

In 2014 the forest in the Mount Pinos area lost 43,926 acres of canopy due to tree mortality and disturbance, according to a 2015 paper written for the Forest Service by UC, Santa Barbara, ecologist Nicole Molinari. Three-fourths of the trees died after the severe drought of 2013, when rainfall totaled less than six inches in Ventura. 

Molinari expects more drought and more fire. In the paper, she wrote that “Since 2012, California has experienced a record-setting drought that includes the lowest yearly precipitation on record. Tree ring data suggests that the 2012-2014 drought is the most severe in the past 1,200 years.”

Last year the county had about 60 percent of average rainfall but remains in an “exceptional” drought. This is due in part to a decades-long trend toward greater variation in precipitation from year to year. This “flashiness” tips the hydrology toward bigger floods when it does rain and longer droughts when it does not. 

Molinari points to a number of streamflow studies showing declines in Ventura County backcountry streams going back decades. Santa Paula Creek has declined by over 20 percent, to a “below normal” rate, according to the report, while the Sespe (Creek) north of Ojai has also declined  over 20 percent in the last 30 years to a “much below normal” flow.

WHY THE DRYNESS AND HEAT?

This August was the hottest on record in California, according to NOAA.

To explain why, meteorologists and climatologists point to an unusually persistent ridge of high pressure that has been blocking weather systems that might otherwise have brought cool winds and precipitation to California from the north.

“This high-pressure system has been sitting over the Southwest deserts for much of this summer,” said Eric Boldt, of the National Weather Service station in Oxnard. “This tends to push the storm track north, and creates a thicker atmosphere over our heads, which is why it’s known as a ‘heat dome.’ ”

Mantua, who co-authored the marine heat-wave study, said that although the cause of the drought in California has not yet been proven, many experts suspect a link between the marine heat wave, The Blob it helped spawn, and the persistent ridge of high pressure that brought us heat and drought in the summer and dryness in the winter.

“One way to look at it is to say that the same weather pattern that created the marine heat wave also created the big problems in the climate over the West Coast, including these heat waves,” said Mantua. “We have the continuation of the severe drought, record temperatures in 2015, and that’s stressed terrestrial ecosystems, including coastal oak forests and a massive die-off in the pine forests.”

Noah Diffenbaugh, who leads a climate team at Stanford University, published a study this March arguing that global warming has increased drought risk in California. Although climatologists agree that rain and snow can be difficult to predict for California, they are unanimous that temperatures in the state are predictable — they have been rising steadily for over a century, and the curve is bending upward.

Coastal southern California is experiencing one of the faster rises in the state, of 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit since 1940, according to ecologist Molinari. Temperatures in the state as a whole have risen 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, according to NOAA, and more this summer. In September NOAA said in the coastal Southern California area, including Ventura County, this summer temperatures were 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average. 

This means more droughts. From 1896-1996, according to Diffenbaugh, California was in drought 14 percent of the time. From 1996 to 2016, California was in drought 30 percent of the time. Diffenbaugh and his colleagues expect that percentage to rise even higher.

“It used to be in California that we got pretty much half wet years and half dry years, and half warm years and half cool years,” he said. “What’s happening with long-term warming is that we’re getting warm years pretty much year after year. It’s like you’re flipping two coins. We’ve got a precipitation coin that’s half wet and half dry, and a temperature coin that’s really loaded towards warm conditions. So we have a much higher likelihood of getting a dry year and a warm year together, and you’re much more likely to get drought.”

Daniel Swain, another researcher at Stanford, found huge online popularity in part by naming the persistent high-pressure ridge that in recent years has formed in the Pacific Northwest and helped block winter weather systems from the north from reaching Southern California. He calls it the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR).

“A lot of us [climatologists] thought that El Niño would come along and knock over that resilient ridge, but it just kind of nudged it a little bit and all our storms went a little bit to the north,” said Steve LaDochy, a climatologist at CSU, Los Angeles. He published a study recently that found a drying trend in precipitation in Southern California since 1920.

As reservoir levels in Lake Casitas continue to fall, some county water officials have called for more than conservation. At a “drought summit” on Sept. 22 officials explained conservation measures, but also mentioned confidential negotiations to connect Ojai and West Ventura to state water sources via a pipeline running through Somis. 

Lake Casitas was designed to withstand a 21-year drought, but scientists warn that we are moving toward megadroughts (defined as droughts that last for 35 years or longer). A researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Andreas Prein, published a study in February that looked at satellite data that first became available to scientists in l979. Using existing algorithms, he tracked 12 identifiable weather patterns that pass over Southern California and the Southwest. Three of these patterns tend to bring rain or snow, and all three have been dialed down in the last 36 years.

“The wetter years are drier, and the drier years are more and more dry, which is really the problem,” he said in an interview. “We can easily drift into a drought situation, and even the normal climate will generally be drier.”

UCLA scientist Glen Macdonald in September published a study linking drought to global warming and, based on what happened in the Sierras during the hot “thermal maximum” of about 1,000 years ago, warned of the possibility of a drought lasting hundreds of year in California.

Already, experts expect at least an additional 10 percent of the Southwest to dry out this century. “As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, and it gets this moisture from plants and soils over land. That lowers soil moisture. This would favor a shift in some semiarid systems to arid,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who oversees the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. “It’s all about odds, and with continued global warming, the odds go up that many semiarid regions would dry out enough to become arid regions. Southern California includes such regions.”

Overpeck stresses that storms will continue to bring rain to Southern California, and some of those storms will be even wetter than in the past because a warmer atmosphere holds more water. A single storm system (a “cut-off low”) in December 2010 brought weeks of rain to Ventura County — otherwise Ventura County would be looking at a potential 10th year of drought this year instead of a potential sixth year. Like many other scientists, Overpeck hopes that the worst impacts can be avoided if we restrain global warming to less than two degrees Celsius by 2050.

This month Toby Ault, a researcher at Cornell, published a study in Science warning that even if precipitation continues to fall at past levels, the risk of a megadrought in the Southwest stood at 90 percent based on the ongoing rise in temperature. Ben Cook, a researcher who in 2015 published a study in Science warning that a sharp falloff of soil moisture in the Southwest has already begun, and like Ault, calls for action to reduce emissions, along the lines of California’s legislation to reduce state emissions 40 percent below 1990 by 2030.

“These projections don’t mean we’re destined for a Mad Max kind of future,” he said. “But we need to be smarter about water, and to mitigate our emissions so we do not arrive at this much hotter and drier place. I am optimistic, because the losing proposition is to ignore the problem.”

Still, the massive blob of warmth that surprised experts with its appearance in the Pacific Northwest in 2014 never entirely went away, according to the Alaska “Blob” Tracker at the University of Washington, and this month Swain tweeted NOAA charts showing “The Blob is back!”

In the 1958 movie, the remnants of The Blob are frozen and parachuted into the vast white desert of the frozen north. “As long as the Arctic stays cold,” says the hero McQueen in conclusion, “the danger has been stopped.”

If only we could say the same about The Blob — and our drought.