The Blob and Oregon's Drought

Jul 01, 2015

The Source Weekly

The Blob and Oregon's Drought

Spoiler alert: It doesn't end well for the climate


BY CAMILLA MORTENSEN

If you slowly boil a frog in a pot of water, it won't really stay in the water and die. Given a chance to jump out, it will.

Even so, that boiling frog anecdote has been used endlessly to describe people who don't react to negative changes if they happen gradually. And it would be a useful one to describe Oregonians and our changing climate, if it were true. But frogs do have the sense to jump out of hot water; meanwhile this summer Oregonians are stuck in the second year of a drought—one that has extended further than previous years, with Gov. Kate Brown declaring drought conditions in 20 Oregon counties and the U.S. Drought Monitor saying some 3 million Oregonians will be affected. According to the Drought Monitor, 81 percent of Oregon, including Deschutes County, is in severe drought.

But what has not been receiving much attention yet is a massive patch of warm water in the Pacific that might be a major contributor to Oregon's current drought. Scientists are calling the patch, "The Blob."

In leading up to explaining The Blob, Phil Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI)—and a lead author for the fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received a Nobel Prize—points out that "how people experience climate is largely through extreme events." For example, he says, people focus on the snow and cold they had this winter on the East Coast. And people confuse climate—which is atmospheric conditions over a long period of time—with weather, where conditions change over a short period.

Mote uses a comparison made popular by fellow climate scientist Jerry Meehl to help people understand how extreme weather and climate change interact: Think of Barry Bonds, who hit lots of home runs, then took steroids and hit more home runs. For every given time Bonds was at bat after taking the drugs, "you could say it was made more likely by the steroids," Mote said.

"What we are seeing now is the climate on steroids," he said, but exceptions like last year's snowy Western Oregon winter are "equivalent to when Barry Bonds strikes out when on steroids; he strikes out less often, but it still happens."

And, like a ball player on a hot or cold streak, there are often many contributing factors. According to a paper published in May in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, one main contribution to this year's warm west coast winter was "The Blob."

A term coined by Nick Bond, a climate scientist out of Washington state, The Blob is a "huge patch of water, 1,000 miles in each direction and 300 feet deep" that extends from Mexico to Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. (While the Source is unaware of any reports of frogs fleeing the warmer waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] reports that species associated with warmer waters like ocean sunfish, blue shark, and thresher shark are showing up in the Gulf of Alaska. NOAA fisheries scientists says that if the warmth continues or expands, Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead could suffer in coming years.)

According to Science Daily, "As air passes over warmer water [The Blob] and reaches the coast it brings more heat and less snow, which the paper shows helped cause current drought conditions in California, Oregon, and Washington."

Oregon State is looking further into The Blob in the Pacific Ocean—how it arrived and, more pressing, whether it is responsible for the drought that affects areas far from the sea, such as Bend. The Blob's water is four degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, says Mote, one of the principal investigators. He added, "Four degrees may not sound like much, but that kind of anomaly in the ocean is huge."

Mote continued, "It's been a one-two-three punch here. We're getting warm winters, followed by a dry February through April period, and fairly warm but unusually dry summers." He added, "In the past, when we've had droughts, things look bad initially from a snowpack standpoint, but cool, wet March and April months bailed us out. We're haven't gotten those the past two years."

To poke and probe The Blob, a research team is setting in place a plan to run hundreds of variations of computer models aimed at calculating the influence of The Blob on West Coast climate. The research team will compare oceanographic and climate data, including observed sea surface temperatures, from an 18-month stretch between Dec. 1, 2013 and May 31, 2015 to other 18-month stretches from 1981 to 2010. Because the amount of data running the computer models "is staggering," according to OSU researchers, they plan to use the combined power of thousands of individual personal computers to run the climate-modeling simulations.

To participate in the computer modeling project, go to climateprediction.net/weatherathome/western-us-drought.

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