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Is The Blob Back?

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Given that you may have been a bit distracted over the summer – though I’m not sure why – you may not have noticed that the northeast Pacific Ocean was hit by its second hottest marine heat wave on record, with alarmingly warm water stretching from Alaska down past California.

2020 appears to be a near repeat of what we saw last year off the West Coast – when the area was hit by its now third hottest heat wave on record – but last year, surface temperatures had cooled down across large swaths of the area by November.

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A sea surface temperature anomaly map from November 2019. (Courtesy of Andrew Leising at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

This year it’s still worryingly hot, especially close to the coast.

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Sea surface temperature anomaly map from November 2020. (Courtesy of Andrew Leising at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

“This year it regrew from the ashes of the heat wave from last year,” said Andrew Leising, research oceanographer and marine heat wave tracker at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I think there’s a chance that some of this heat could stick around.”

That’s concerning, because marine heat waves can lead to toxic algal blooms, which can hurt sea life and force fisheries to shut down. We’ve also seen mass sea lion and seal pup strandings, when their parents take off to go hunt for food, like squid, that’s migrated north in search of colder waters.

This is all reminiscent of the record setting “Blob” that hit the area just five years ago. Marine heat waves are becoming more common as the climate continues to warm, which of course has a ton of terrifying implications.

“That’s what we’re concerned about right now," said Leising. "Because it’s too much of a coincidence to have this many heat waves right on top of each other."

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We could see things cool down a bit if strong enough winds pass over the region and mix up the warmer surface waters with the colder ones deeper down. But Leising said he's starting to see waters as much as 300 feet beneath the surface begin to warm. That's another reason to be concerned about the staying power of this marine heat wave.

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