The Blob: Chaos In The Pacific

What happens when a warm waters invade the Pacific? Chaos.

An expanse of unusually warm water in the northern Pacific Ocean had a profound effect upon marine animals from Mexico to Alaska. Nicknamed ‘the blob’ by Nicholas Bond, a University of Washinton meteorologist, the warm water was first observed in 2013 and stayed until 2015. The blob was about 5 degree Fahrenheit warmer than the typical ocean temperature found in the Pacific. This unprecedented warm water stretched over 500 miles.

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The three “blobs” of warm water can be seen off the North American coast, ranging from Alaska to Mexico, seen in this graphic dated 1 September 2014.

What caused the blob? There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the events that led to the formation of this warm water. A widely accepted theory is that this heat is due to normal atmospheric fluctuations in the jet stream triggered by warmth in the tropics. Others suggest that climate change has played a major part. However, it’s effects were numerous and deadly. In 2015, at least a dozen whales died in June alone in Alaska, slashing the average of eight dead whales a year. Sea stars were reported to ‘melt’ away in tide pools, from California to Alaska. In California, twenty times more sea lions than average starved to death. Many species found in tropical warm waters were found far away. Shelled octopuses were found in Southern California even though their typical home is the South Pacific. Market squid laid eggs in southeast Alaska, coming from California.

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A dying sea otter takes its last breaths. The population of sea otters in Kachemak Bay is considered healthy, but the number of strandings near Homer, Alaska, in 2015 surprised scientists and volunteers, who often responded to several otter deaths in a day. Credit: Paul Nicklen

‘Warmer temperatures speed fish metabolisms, requiring them to eat more, just as their food declines. Some fish may see tinier bodies, more disease, and, in many cases, falling populations, according to recent studies. Already, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many fish and plankton are heading toward the poles in search of cooler temperatures. As productive areas grow scarcer with less cold water, fish and predators will congregate in fewer places, creating new challenges.’ – Craig Welch (National Geographic).

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A fin whale lies dead on Kodiak Island, Alaska. At least 30 whales washed up on the coasts of Alaska and B.C. this summer, and scientists are blaming a toxic algae bloom.

In the spring, a single-celled alga called Pseudo-nitzschia will bloom in warm waters. The blob provided a unique opportunity for this algae to grow into an extraordinary 2000 mile toxic surge. The alga produces a neurotoxin, a killer for animals and humans. The toxin, domoic acid, can cause seizures, memory loss and death. So when interns with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge collected hundred of dead sea otters and lions on the beaches, they found the domoic acid to be contributing to numerous deaths. There have also been reports of the toxin accumulating in whales.

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Pseudo-nitzschia. A deadly single celled alga.

“When all is said and done, I think people will see this as the most economically and ecologically consequential event in our historical record,” Mantua says of the recent warming.  Nate Mantua, at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California.

Is the blob merely an unfortunate natural occurrence or a preview of what is to come?

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