According to yesterday's Washington Post, there is a gigantic warm blob in the Pacific Ocean that is fueling California's four-year-long drought, and it has nothing to do with global warming. Two new studies released this week in the journal "Geophysical Research Letters", explain how this large expanse of warm ocean water is affecting California's weather as well as the East Coast's past two brutal winters.
In the first study, Nick Bond, Washington's state climatologist, believes the blob, a.k.a. the "warm anomaly," is behind California's ongoing warm and dry winters. Discovered in the fall of 2013, the warm anomaly is roughly 1,000 miles wide and about 300 feet deep, and according to Bond, is about 3°C (5°F) warmer than is typical for that area of the Pacific ocean. When viewed on a map showing ocean water temperatures, "the great circular mass does indeed look like a blob."
Bond and his researchers believe the anomaly was created when a high-pressure air system got stuck over the circular blob's current location, allowing the ocean water to stay calmer and warmer. This in turn allowed the air above this system to carry heat instead of the typical rain and snow as it worked its way toward land, leading to California's multi-year drought.
"The West Coast’s high temperatures and dire drought, which has led to mandatory water restrictions in California, are likely attributable to this phenomenon," the researchers said. "These new studies also confirm the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) March report, which said "that West Coast waters are becoming less biologically productive as they become warmer. The report attributed the strandings of nearly 1,500 starving sea lion pups, the decline in copepods (tiny crustaceans that support the base of the food chain) and other environmental shifts to the expanding blob." NOAA also put most of the blame on California's drought on natural variables and not climate change.
In the second study, headed by Dennis Hartmann, they found that the "warming waters of the northeast Pacific are tied to an anomaly in water temperatures thousands of miles away, roughly where the International Date Line and the equator intersect in the Tropics." Surface waters in this location are much warmer than normal and are heating the air above them, which eventually reaches the West Coast. Hartmann likens it to "throwing a rock into a pond...the wave eventually makes its way to the other side."
And while the warm waters create a unyielding high pressure system off the West Coast, they cause "cold, wet, low-pressure air in the central and eastern U.S., leading to heavy snowfall and bitterly cold winters." According to the historical record, unusual ocean warming in the Tropics has occurred before, and Hartmann admits, "it could be just another natural variation in ocean and atmosphere temperatures, similar to the El Niño-La Niña cycle."
Harmann declined to say whether the warming of the Tropics is due to global warming, writing, “I don’t think we know the answer. Maybe it will go away quickly and we won’t talk about it anymore, but if it persists for a third year, then we’ll know something really unusual is going on." Bond also said in the same joint release that "although the blob does not seem to be caused by climate change, it has many of the same effects for West Coast weather."
The blob also has all the characteristics of another less-known phenomena termed megaplumes: massive underwater vents that spew out vast amounts of heat, which in turn warm the waters above. According to geologist James Kamis, “An ongoing very large megaplume is responsible for generating a cell of unusually warm seawater that extends across a vast region of the Pacific Ocean, including much of North America’s west coast. This sub-sea volcanically induced giant warmed cell is acting to alter normal California climate patterns and inducing a long term draught.
Even Discover Magazine noted the importance of a megaplume's influence on ocean waters, writing "Megaplumes stir up huge amounts of ocean, carrying minerals and gases and heat almost to the sea’s surface. Vertical mixing doesn’t happen easily in the ocean. Cool, dense water tends to stay near the bottom and warmer buoyant water near the top." David Butterfield, a chemist at the the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, told Discover Magazine that, "They could be doing things to the energy of the ocean that we don’t even know about."
Scientists first discovered megaplumes in 1986 when they identified a large cell of unusually hot and chemically charged seawater off the coast of Washington state. Baker et al discovered this phenomenon near the Juan de Fuca Ridge, and it was the first cataclysmic hydrothermal vent or megaplume."
NOAA even developed an entire group, the VENTS Program, to research hydrothermal vents. "As research by the VENTS and other groups progressed, even larger megaplumes were identified," writes Kamis. These include "megaplumes discovered in the Indian and Atlantic oceans," which were immense: 44 miles by 20 miles by 5,000 feet tall. "Calculations of total energy released per megaplume were so astounding, researchers concluded, that megaplumes could "'significantly effect ocean dynamics.'"
Kamis found that "scientists were beginning to get a handle on the effect that geological forces have on the ocean, and as a result, the climate. Then it happened: Atmospherically trained climate scientists proposed the theory of man-made global warming. Seemingly overnight, these scientists had waylaid further investigation into the megaplumes’ effect on the climate."
"Credible evidence increasingly supports the theory of plate climatology, which states that geological forces influence El Niños, Arctic sea ice melt patterns, hydrothermal methane and CO2 emission rates, deep-ocean currents, coral reef bleaching, plankton blooms, mega-droughts, and so on."
"The discovery of geologically induced megaplumes played an important historical role in the evolution of climate science." Kamis adds. "To the satisfaction of field geologists, that notion is currently experiencing a resurrection."