The Bizarre Link Between the Fort McMurray Fire and a 'Warm Blob' in the Pacific

Everything is connected.
May 19, 2016, 12:00pm

In the winter of 2013-14, surfers on the west coast of Canada started noticing something weird: no good waves. "It was one of the worst surfing seasons," Richard Dewey, an oceanographer in Victoria, BC, told me. Usually, in winter months, storms cut across the Gulf of Alaska, and a few days later, there's surf. That year, there weren't really any big storms.

What these surfers were witnessing, Dewey said, was the birth of the blob: a bizarre "warm blob" of water, as oceanographers call it, that's been sitting out in the Pacific, in the Gulf of Alaska, since 2014. At its peak, this patch of water—which is 2-3°C warmer than normal—was more than double the size of BC, and went 100m deep, said Dewey, who maintained a chronicle of it on the Blob Blog. The blob seems to have been caused by that lack of storms, which usually blast down cold Arctic air to mix with ocean water.


Turns out there's an unsettling link between the warm blob in the Pacific and the number of wildfires we're now seeing in Western Canada, including the one that demolished Fort McMurray, and continues to spread. Startlingly, there's evidence that a melting Arctic could be related to these events.

The blob at its peak intensity, in January 2014. Image: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado, USA, Boulder Colorado, USA

The blob has a complicated backstory, but a lack of winter storms seems to have been related to shifts in the jet stream, which caused bizarre conditions across North America, Dewey said. That year, the Alaskan winter was unusually mild, and there was a cold snap as far south as Texas. California has been experiencing hot and dry conditions, which led to a terrible drought. The Eastern seaboard got whacked by a neverending winter.

"They're all related," said Dewey, who's based at the University of Victoria's Ocean Networks Canada, a monitoring system in the Pacific.

As a consequence of this same weather pattern, which has dominated North America for the past two years, we've seen "dry, warm conditions out west," Dewey continued, "from California all the way to the Yukon." Spring is coming earlier, and there hasn't been much rain. Wildfires are raging in Western Canada, earlier than usual, from the Alberta oil town of Fort McMurray—which has been decimated—to BC and the Northwest Territories.

These fires, and the warm blob, are both "symptoms" of the same problem, Dewey said.

Scientists will often emphasize that one single event—whether it's a wildfire in Alberta, or the formation of a giant hot blob in the Pacific—can't be directly tied to climate change. But the jet stream has been remarkably wavy the last few years. It might be no coincidence that, in 2012, the Arctic also saw its lowest sea ice on record, Dewey points out.

"The Arctic is the northern boundary to the jet stream," he said. Scientists are beginning to investigate whether wild fluctuations in the jet stream are related to a rapidly melting Arctic.

As for the warm blob, it slowly seems to be dissipating, Dewey told me: it's moving deeper into the ocean (as deep as 300m), which means it can no longer be detected by satellite. Weather conditions seem to be returning to normal. As for Fort McMurray, "any one wildfire can't be associated with climate change," he said, but an increase in fires is a symptom of it.

Not just wildfires, but droughts, extreme cold snaps, and a mysterious warm blob lurking far out in the Pacific. All of it is connected.