California sea life could be imperiled by new ocean “blob”

NOAA Fisheries

The “blob” is back. 

Or so says a group of researchers from the NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. The blob was a massive marine heatwave that caused record warming of ocean waters (up to nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal) off the West Coast five years ago. It led to sprawling algae blooms and had other impacts that caused salmon numbers to crash and thousands of malnourished sea lions to wash up on California beaches. 

“Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen,” says a NOAA Fisheries spokesman. Scientists are unsure of the blob is somehow related to climate change, but it’s hard to imagine the two are not connected.

Researchers are calling this year’s phenomenon “The Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave of 2019”, and they are hopeful that the heat will dissipate and we may avert the tragic impacts of five years ago. Scientists say the blob is caused by a persistent area of low pressure in the atmosphere directly above the warm water. This leads to changes in wind patterns that limit the amount of cold water that usually rises from the ocean’s depths to the surface. 

High sea surface temperatures create serious impacts on all levels of the ocean ecosystem, with particularly disastrous effects for top predators like marine mammals. Warm waters are much less nutrient-rich than the cold upwelling waters which normally sit off the Pacific Coast. The reduction in nutrients reduces phytoplankton productivity, which has an impact on the zooplankton which feed on it which then reverberates up the food chain. 

That means mammals like sea lions are left without a crucial food source. The impacts trickle down to sea lion pups, who often bear the brunt of the blob’s effects. 

But scientists, for now, are crossing their fingers that this year won’t be nearly as disastrous as 2014. 

“Really, only time will tell if this feature will persist and if it will rival the past event in duration and impact,” Andrew Leising, a research oceanographer at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla told the Los Angeles Times.