Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Expect more dangerous ocean ‘blobs’ warn researchers

Expect more dangerous ocean ‘blobs’ warn researchers
24 Apr
2020
Researchers studying marine heatwaves in the northeast Pacific, known as the Blob and the Blob 2.0, are warning that there will be more to come

It was late 2013 when those keeping an eye on the North Pacific Ocean first realised that something strange was happening within its waters. From the coast of Alaska all the way down to Baja California, a marine heatwave was swelling, impacting the marine life and fisheries of the region for years to come.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

Researchers found that many marine animals responded to the warmer waters by extending their range northward. Creatures typically only seen in warmer Mexican waters, including jellyfish, crabs, nudibranchs, fish, as well as larger animals such as dolphins and sea turtles, were found on, or off, beaches in California.

Nicknamed the 'Blob’ by University of Washington climatologist Nick Bond – a name that fast caught on – the phenomenon saw sea temperatures in some places rise seven degrees Fahrenheit higher than average, with some patches of ocean hotter than ever recorded. At its peak, the warm water covered about 3.5 million square miles, an area larger than the United States.

The Summer of 2019 also saw a renewed marine heatwave off the US west coast. Dubbed Blob 2.0, the wave of heat saw waters reach 4.5F (2.5C) higher than normal. New research released this week suggests that lighter winds, in turn caused by the weakest North Pacific atmospheric circulation patterns in at least the last 40 years, spurred the event. Less wind blowing over the ocean’s surface means there’s less evaporation and less cooling. The researchers explain the process as being similar to wind cooling off human skin by evaporating sweat. ‘In 2019, it was as if the ocean was stuck outside on a hot summer day with no wind to cool it down,’ reads the text accompanying the study.

shutterstock 228626311 1The original Blob, which began in 2013, stretched from Baja California in Mexico (pictured here) up to Alaska

Oceanologists and climatologists are now warning that we should expect to see more ‘blobs’ in the future as global warming progresses. ‘It’s the same argument that can be made for heat waves on land,’ said Dillon Amaya, a postdoctoral visiting fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. ‘Global warming shifts the entire range of possibilities towards warmer events. The Blob 2.0 is just the beginning. In fact, events like this may not even be considered “extreme” in the future.’

In another study, also released this week, researchers combined the latest climate, ocean and fish modelling approaches to try and quantify the future impacts of marine heatwaves like the Blob on fish stocks along the west coast of Canada and the USA. The resulting models reveal that future blobs would exacerbate existing climate change impacts, causing fisheries to decrease in biomass and generating shifts in their distribution.

shutterstock 1226402344Sockeye salmon are one species that could be affected by future blobs

‘Previous studies have largely under-estimated climate change impacts on our marine life as they focused on changes in the average conditions,’ said William Cheung, a professor at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. ‘The actual impacts in the next few decades are likely to be doubled when marine heatwaves occur. For example, in the year when a marine heatwave occurs, the average biomass of sockeye salmon in the ocean off Alaska and British Columbia is projected to reduce by more than 10 per cent. This is in addition to a biomass decrease of 10-20 per cent that is expected under long-term climate change.’

While each blob may be caused by the unique combination of climatic factors at the time, it is greenhouse gas emissions and global heating that drives ocean warming as a whole and therefore makes such events more damaging. ‘Our results underscore the need for a reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – the fundamental driver of ocean warming, to limit challenges from marine heatwaves on fish stocks and fisheries,’ said Thomas Frölicher, co-author of the recent study.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Nature

The field of bioremediation involves cleaning up toxic waste products…

Wildlife

A new analysis tots up the cost of invasive species…

Climate

It’s surprisingly difficult to know why trees die, but understanding…

Nature

By the late 1980s, almost all mature specimens of the…

Oceans

Scientists are discovering that narwhal tusks reveal a great deal about…

Climate

Climate change is bringing earlier, dangerous 'false springs', longer summers…

Wildlife

A victory for conservation, South Africa has announced plans to…

Energy

The UK has made little progress decarbonising heating, but a significant source…

Nature

The concept of 'natural capital', where the value of nature…

Geophoto

Prestigious photography competition returns for a fourth year

Climate

Founded in the USA by Denis Hayes, Earth Day became…

Geophoto

Tom Goldner's project Do Brumbies Dream in Red? is an intimate portrayal…

Wildlife

Not your usual tune: translating spider's silk into sound could…

Oceans

Millions of oysters have been rescued from the struggling shellfish…

Climate

History is littered with examples of fungi helping to digest…

Geophoto

The streets of Philadelphia are home to a small and forgotten…

Geophoto

When photographer Matthew Maran first snapped a fox he had…

Wildlife

Coloradans have voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state