Scientists nicknamed it “the blob” last summer. Since then the mass of water penetrating the North Pacific has become persistent in waters from Alaska to Baja, showing up as red and orange when scientists map it. A new report by NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Southwest Fisheries Science Center notes record-high sea surface temperatures characterized by as much as 5.4 degrees F higher than average.
"We are seeing unprecedented changes in the environment," says Toby Garfield, director of the Environmental Research Division at the Southwest center.
Climate and ecological indicators point to reverberations throughout the marine food web.
Waters in the Gulf of Alaska began warming in the winter of 2013/2014 because the area wasn't getting the kinds of winter storms needed to extract heat from the surface of the ocean and cool it, explains Garfield. A separate report issued by the National Snow and Ice Data Center last week notes that Arctic sea ice was at its lowest level ever recorded . Numerous studies confirm that 2014 was also the warmest year ever recorded.
United Nations experts, many scientists and federal authorities link the dramatic thinning and disappearance of Arctic ice to climate change. "This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades," says Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York. "While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases."
Warm waters have been occurring with more frequency in the North Pacific, but what makes the current warming atypical is that it's coming ahead of the appearance of any El Niño, the name given to the phenomenon of regular and sometimes large annual variations in sea surface temperatures, air pressure and rainfall. An El Niño usually develops around the equatorial region and tropics and migrates northward. This time the warming is emerging from three North Pacific hot spots, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and Southern California/Baja.