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A mass of unusually warm water in the northeast Pacific, christened the "warm blob" by researchers, is being partially blamed for British Columbia's forest fires, California's drought and an unusually active hurricane season. As it wreaks havoc, the blob provides a preview of what climate change holds in store for the West Coast, according to the scientist who named it.
The warm water system extends more than 1000 miles off the West Coast and up to 150 to 300 feet below the surface, with water temperatures up to 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal in the hottest spots. It's been swirling around a stretch of ocean from Alaska to Mexico for the past two years or so, disrupting weather patterns as far away as Atlantic Canada.
Researchers don't know exactly what's causing the unusually warm conditions, but it could be a result of an El Niño-like pattern of warm air further west, according to Nicholas Bond, a meteorologist at the University of Washington and the state's chief climatologist, who first coined the term "the blob."
He says the blob is having an additional effect on already warm air temperatures, creating a self-sustaining hot cycle that's drifting hundreds of miles inland. The blob is partially to blame for dry conditions in California, he told VICE News, particularly by decreasing snowfall over the previous winter.
"We had much more rain than snow in the mountains than usual," he said. "We count on that snow pack to get us through the spring and summer, so streams are drying up."
The blob's impact on Canada has been even more severe. Heat waves in British Columbia, fueled in part by the blob, have helped fan the flames of the 182 wildfires now sweeping across the province. The fires have claimed one life, triggered numerous evacuation orders and dramatically reduced air quality, with particulate matter readings comparable to Beijing and other heavily polluted Chinese cities.
Fires are also raging in Saskatchewan, leading to the evacuation of 13,000 people. But the blob is likely innocent on that score. Dr. Bond says its impact is probably limited to a few hundred miles off the coast, with the Rocky Mountains blocking any direct effects.
The blob is also creating ideal conditions for hurricanes to form around the Baja California, some of which could cycle back and hit the mainland or drift off toward Hawaii. There have been three major storms in the northeast Pacific this year, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
"We're expecting a pretty lively time," Dr. Bond said. While the storms will not be anywhere near as powerful as Atlantic or Gulf hurricanes, they could disrupt shipping and fisheries.
But the longest term effect of the blob may be on the ocean's wildlife, including seabirds and salmon, he said. The basis of the Pacific's ecosystem is plankton, but the blob's warmer temperatures are leading sub-tropical species to edge out the more nutritious cold-water varieties. Without nutritious plankton, young fish are likely to die out in greater numbers.
While Dr. Bond doesn't see any clear connection between the blob and global warming, he told VICE News that we can expect the conditions we're seeing today to become the new normal.
"The winters will be warmer and a bit wetter, and summers also warmer but a bit drier. So this is a chance to see what it's like," he said.
That will mean more droughts and forest fires, and with scientists pointing to a link between warm water and increasingly powerful hurricanes, an increasingly dangerous storm season for the Pacific.
The blob will almost certainly last until the end of the calendar year, Dr. Bond said. After that, all bets are off, but a couple more years of unseasonably warm water is well within the range of possibilities.
Follow Arthur White on Twitter: @jjjarthur