LONG BEACH — Changes in the North Pacific’s climate and ocean are having unmistakable impacts on economically valuable species and the overall environment, a top scientist told attendees at the 2016 Pacific County Marine Science Conference on May 21.
Nick Bond, Washington state climatologist, brought an easy-going attitude to explaining an array of powerful phenomenon that started catching public attention in the autumn of 2013. It was Bond, a researcher for the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean sponsored by NOAA and the University of Washington, who came up with the name “The Blob” to describe a vast pool of warm seawater that threw the regional food web and climate out of whack.
Bond showed a slide of a 1950s-style monster movie poster to take credit — or blame — for “The Blob” name. But there is nothing amusing about what the condition has meant for crabbers, razor clam diggers, Alaskan pollock fishermen, seabirds and forest firefighters.
Ominously, drastic harm to animals at the base of the ocean food chain threaten salmon runs, and Bond warns “The Blob, Part 2” could show up in nearby ocean waters in as a little as a couple years.
Bond said the development and persistence of “The Blob” took scientists somewhat by surprise. Though instruments showed a growing area of warmer water far away across the ocean, by the time its influence arrived here it was unprecedented in terms of its size and strength. The warmer water, in turn, caused an enduring ridge of high pressure that kept winds and storms away from the Pacific Northwest coast in 2014 and 2015.
The offshore ocean normally cools off 7.5 degrees over the course of the winter, and the air cools even more.
“But three winters ago, it only cooled off 5.5 degrees. So that’s why it was so warm, it didn’t cool off as much,” Bond said. “That big, persistent ridge of higher-than-normal pressure, and weaker winds and winds from an unusual direction — very simply, you want to cool off a bowl of soup, you blow on it — and there weren’t the storms to cool off the ocean in the usual way.”
Although “The Blob” has dissipated from surface waters, by the end of last year, warmer ocean temperatures extended 300 meters — about 975 feet — below the ocean surface.
“That’s a tremendous amount of heat. ... That heat is not going away anytime soon,” Bond said. “What’s really going to be interesting is really how long it’s going to stick around, because it has had impacts.”
The closest parallels to recent conditions occurred in 1958 and 1997, but Bond said those years were wimpy compared to what we’ve recently experienced.
Before “The Blob” arrived, instruments did give some clue that heat was accumulating in a distant region of the Pacific.
“Things that were going on in the tropical Pacific have this amazingly far-afield affect,” Bond said. “What happened here was warmer-than-normal water ... caused these huge, long-lasting clusters of thunderstorms that had a downstream effect of highs and lows from that. It’s almost like you threw a big rock in a fast-moving mountain stream, leaving a series of waves downstream.”
Impacts from ‘The Blob’
“Highly unusual weather” resulted from the warmer ocean, Bond said, leading him and fellow researchers to question “What the hell’s going on?”
In California, for example, juvenile marine mammals were starving to death, but Bond said “what’s happening at the base of the food chain is what’s really critical.”
Copepods are tiny crustaceans — a group animals that also includes crab and shrimp. Bond said the warmer water means nutrient-rich sub-Arctic copepods have been supplanted by warm-water species from farther south.
“Levels of southern copepods have never been observed as high as in the past year,” Bond said. “The whole food chain is more productive when there are more northern copepods — that are just more like a Big Mac than a rice cake if you’re a fish,” he said.
This lack of nutrition in the ocean means hard times for many other species. For example, in the winter of 2014-15, small seabirds called Cassin’s auklets died in droves. Volunteers with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST, found a thousand times more dead auklets than normal on parts of the Oregon coast. A University of Washington professor said “this is probably the largest documented seabird mortality event in world history,” Bond recounted.
Young pollock, a species of great economic importance that is turned into fish sticks and other products “either went somewhere else or didn’t survive” when fisheries researchers were looking for them in Alaskan waters in early 2015, Bond said.
Harmful algal bloom affected a large part of the coastline. “In 2015 there was a massive bloom,” Bond noted. Levels of the toxin went far above the 20 parts per million that is the threshold for barring shellfish harvests, delaying clam and crab harvests last fall. At one point, toxin levels were so persistently high that Washington State Department of Health laboratory workers were running low on lab rats they use to test toxicity, he said.
Meanwhile, “There was a massive whale mortality event in the Gulf of Alaska that is believed is probably linked to this,” Bond said. “That’s scary stuff.”
He noted that for young salmon, the first few months after they enter the ocean “are really essential” for survival to adulthood. Showing a matrix of different factors crucial to salmon wellbeing in the ocean, he said in “2015 almost everything was in the red light category.” This is already being reflected in poor coho returns predicted for this fall.
“We’ll be seeing this impacts of that warm water for a few years in our salmon returns,” he said.
Land reflects the water
Bond said that ocean conditions made their way onto dry land in the form of drought and record temperatures — “2015 was by far the warmest year we’ve had in the Cascades” and “Oct. 1, 2014 through September 2015 [was a time of] record warmth in much of the Northwest.”
By the middle of last summer, almost half the streams in Washington state were at the lowest they had ever been at that time of year, conditions also widespread in Oregon. This resulted in widespread forest fires.
In contrast, the winter of 2015-16 “was really unprecedented. ... We’ve never really had a winter like this last one that was warm and wet — that was really kind of weird in its own right,” he said.
Near-term, long-term prospects
Flashing another movie-poster mock-up, Bond said the predicted development of a La Niña cool-water pattern in the equatorial Pacific could make for a stormier winter in 2016-17 than we’ve seen in a while.
“I think we’re actually going to have a more lively winter here than we’ve had recently,” he said.
In general, though, Bond said measurements prove the Pacific Northwest is warming up, most noticeably in the form of warmer nighttime temps. He said Idaho potato growers are worried, because potatoes don’t thrive with warm nighttimes.
Humidity also is going up in the summertime — “an inexorable upward trend. It still isn’t like Mississippi or any hot place like that, but it is changing,” he said.
By 2040, temps in our region will be 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius warmer in the summertime compared to historical averages. “These are about conditions in the past two or three years or so. [So it’s] kind of a preview of what we’re going to get,” Bond said.
Also by the 2040s, many interior streams will become too warm for salmon and trout, he said. “That is really sobering stuff,” Bond commented.
And “With warmer weather, there’s going to be a longer window when we can have the horrible algal blooms, conditions favorable to these blooms. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to happen, but there is going to be a longer window,” he said.
On land, the Pacific Northwest total water supply is predicted to increase as the century moves forward, but precipitation will be shifting its timing, he said.
“The Blob” could come back relatively soon, but such an “extreme event probably is unlikely,” he said.
Asked whether “The Blob” could become a permanent part of Northwest lives by mid-century, Bond said, “With the increasing baseline, when we have a short-term event like we’ve had, that’ll be on top of the increase of a couple degrees C, and so then it’ll be a totally different place, and it won’t be a good place for salmon. It’ll be a place for more southern species, at least in the ocean, to be able to handle that.”
From a public policy standpoint along the coast, he said the biggest issue for government officials will be “Sea-level change, and that is something that is happening. There’s a lot of uncertainty there. But that’s the thing I would be most concerned about for the folks right here.”