It began as a persistent high pressure weather pattern over the Gulf of Alaska in the autumn of 2013. With more sunshine and lighter winds, it prevented the usual extent of winter cooling of the sea surface, and so it caused an offshore region of warmer than usual water to form.
And then it expanded into something huge, got named The Blob, and sea surface temperatures rose more than 3 degrees C (5 degrees F) warmer than average, warmer than anything on record. During 2014-2015 it moved shoreward bringing warm weather to the West coast from Alaska south to the North West States, reducing the snow pack and all that implies.
It also has also created relative havoc in the coastal waters: the southerly flowing cool coastal California Current has weakened, warmer water has pushed north, and sub-tropical species of fish are turning up in the Gulf of Alaska.
This past month a most astonishing crab, the Red Tuna Crab, Pleuroncodes planipes, has also turned up, stranding by the thousands upon thousands on the shores of Southern California from Ocean Beach to La Jolla. This is a crab that looks as if it wants to be a shrimp. It spends its whole life cycle swimming in the water column off the bottom, voraciously eating plankton, forming immense swarms, fed on by whales, porpoises, larger fish and seabirds Not by humans though, because of some toxins it carries.
Normally it lives in the warmer water of the Gulf of California and along the west coast of Baja. Subject to winds, tides and currents, in warmer years – El Nino years, for instance – stranded swarms are not that unusual on the shores of southern California. But of course, the past couple of years have not been El Nino years.
They have been the years of The Pacific Blob.
We don’t know yet the full extent of the impact of The Blob. But fish that have been seen far north of their regular sub-tropical coastal waters, even to the Gulf of Alaska, include skipjack tuna and albacore, Ocean Sunfish and Thresher Sharks. The strandings of the siphonophore jellyfish Velella in the summer of 2014, the starving Cassin’s Auklets, the starving California Sea Lion pups now dying along many parts of the west coast – these are all probably victims of The Blob.
Among many associated problems, fewer nutrients are reaching the warmer surface waters, chlorophyll amounts have dropped – affecting plankton abundance – and a lack of small fish for foraging adult auklets and sea lions may explain their starving and dying offspring.
How will the salmon of the Alaskan, BC and Northwest coasts be affected? Well, we’ll see soon enough, but it cannot be good.
Why did this all happen? There is an intriguing link to weather patterns in the southern tropical Pacific, but nothing certain. Is there a link to climate change? We don’t know. How will it end? It just needs the winds of the Gulf of Alaska to pick up again, and all should return to normal.
The elusive normal. What we know is that most marine animals are closely tied to the sea temperatures around them. We know that now, finally, after several years of inaction, a new and seemingly major El Nino is developing, the first like this since the crippling one of 1997-19978, and the warm coastal temperatures will persist.
At the least we are probably getting a preview of what warming oceans will be like on the west coast in the decades ahead. Not reassuring perhaps, but fascinating none the less.
But normal? There is no normal. Perhaps there never was.