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The Pacific “Blob” And The Pause

Dr David Whitehouse

Is there a connection between 2014 (the “world’s warmest year”), the even warmer 2015 and dying fish in the north Pacific? The thing that connects them is, as you may have guessed, warm water, or more specifically warm water where it should not be.

Something strange is happening to the north Pacific. It is setting sea temperature records, scrambling weather patterns, damaging ecosystems, and nudging up the global temperature. The scientists who have observed it call it after what it looks like on temperature maps of the Pacific – behold the “blob.”

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“We knew almost two years ago that there was something strange happening in the north Pacific,” says Dr Bill Peterson, of NOAA’s Northwest Fish Science Center in Newport, Washington. It seems that the Summer warmth of 2014 was not dissipated later in the year. He told the GWPF, “Usually in the Gulf of Alaska huge storms in the wintertime mixes the water down super deep and cools the ocean quite a lot…but we didn’t have those storms in the Winter of 2014-15.”

The lack of storms has been linked to a persistent high-pressure ridge in the north Pacific. Some believe this was a consequence of unusual atmospheric circulation over the North Pacific and the North Atlantic. But whatever the cause, during the winter of 2013-14 a large region of the north Pacific became much warmer than normal. Dr Peterson: “So the water stayed warm all Winter, and when Spring came the water was already warm by several degrees than normal, and then of course it got warmer because of the Sun.” It was totally unprecedented. Scientists have looked back at data as far as 1905 and nothing like the “blob” has ever happened before. “These temperatures are above anything we have seen before,” adds Dr Peterson.

The abnormally warm water of the “blob” influenced global surface temperatures adding more than enough to elevate 2014 into the world’s warmest year by the two hundredths of a degree it needed to “beat” 2010. Such a small increase is not statistically significant given errors of +/- 0.1°C, but it emphasises the point that without the Pacific “blob” 2014 would have been somewhat cooler than 2010, and probably cooler than other years as well.

Another reason why 2014 was so warm was also because of an El Nino that seemed to start and then decline. Nobody understands why the event fizzled out; perhaps it was because of the influence of the “blob.”

2015 Even Warmer

This year has been the warmest on record which makes it almost certain it will be warmer than 2014. This is due to the blob and the resurgence of the El Nino in recent months, which many are predicting will be as strong as the 1998 event. See NOAA and the WMO.

The warmth of 2015 so far and the expectation that it will get even warmer has already given rise to headlines that the “pause” has ended and that global warming has resumed. However one does not follow from the other.

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The “blob” and the El Nino are weather events not climate, natural fluctuations and not long-term trends. Seen in relation to the much discussed “pause” in global annual average surface temperatures since the late 90s, their contribution to world temperature does not represent a resumption of long term anthropogenic warming in the same way that the cool year of 2007 did not represent the onset of a rapid decline in global temperature. Both warm and cool natural fluctuations are to be expected, and it takes more than one, or even two years of higher temperature to rule out normal statistical variations and declare the “pause” has ended. Also, El Ninos are followed by La Ninas, so while 2016 is expected to be warm, subsequent years may be somewhat cooler, just as 1999 and 2000 were considerably cooler than 1998.

Dr Nick Bond of the University of Washington was the first to identify the Pacific “blob.” Asked about what would happen to it now he told the GWPF, “It should last into 2016, based on the projections from climate models used for seasonal prediction.” He added, “The winds and weather expected this winter due to El Nino should cool off the western portion of the blob, but maintain the warm waters along the west coast of North America.”

It would be fair to say that no one really knows how the “blob” and the El Nino will interact. There are many contradictory views, herehere and here.

But could there be a connection between the “blob,” the forthcoming very strong El Nino and anthropogenic climate change? Bill Peterson stresses that what is currently happening is, “certainly weather – natural variability.” But of course unusual events are looked at in a new light in these days of global warming and climate projections. What in the past would have been attributed to a once in a century event is now suspected of complicity with increasing CO2. Some scientists are certainly thinking this but no one will say that right now. It will not be possible to prove such a link for a decade at least.

The “blob” and the El Nino are developing and will make 2015 the warmest year of the instrumental era by a significant margin. It will be interesting to see how some protagonists try to wring out a resumption of long-term climatic change due to anthropogenic global warming out of two extreme weather events. As these BBC headlines show, it’s already started to happen.

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