I confess. I'm a weather geek. Tell me something weird about weather and I'm all over it.
That's why I'm so fascinated by a new, unexplained event in the Pacific Ocean that is not El Nino, but may be a weather-driving phenomenon every bit as significant.
Most oceanic patterns that affect weather patterns in North America have been given very scholarly names. The El Nino Southern Oscillation, which we typically shorten to El Nino or ENSO, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation. This one, scientists are calling "the blob."
It was first noticed in the winter of 2013-14 as a roughly circular patch of warmer than normal water off the coast of Washington state and extending up to the Alaska Bay. A researcher with the University of Washington's Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean, Nick Bond, blames the blob for the warmer and drier than normal temperatures and the lack of snowpack in the mountains of the west coast.
Bond co-authored a recent paper published by the American Geophysical Union. That paper suggests that the blob is not only responsible for drought and heat in the west, but has generated the wind patterns that have brought record snow and cold to the northeast.
The warm pool is also blamed for a change in the migration for fish that feed on cold-water nutrients and for a lack of food supply that is causing famine in baby sea lions.
The blob, according to Bond, is growing and now stretches 1,000 miles all along the West Coast from Alaska down to Mexico.
The thing about the blob is nobody knows where it came from, what caused it, how long it will linger, how much it may grow, or just about anything else.
Longtime weather geek that I am, I have to confess that this doesn't surprise me. What we don't know about the interplay of the ocean and the atmosphere is vast. Even on events we think we know, such as El Nino, our science is woefully short. While its existence has been known for decades, we didn't really start taking it seriously until the very strong El Nino of 1998. Considering the millions, maybe billions, of years that Planet Earth has been in development, that's a ridiculously small sliver of time.
What scientists seem to agree on is the blob was not caused by global warming. It appears to have no relationship to an overall change in base temperature. It is not warming of the ocean in general, but an anomaly of a specific region, much like El Nino. And like El Nino, they agree it may be having a big effect on climate patterns, including drought.
It seems to me that really significant thing about events like both the blob and El Nino goes back to very basic weather science. It is a difference of temperature that changes air pressure and that causes wind. Heat causes high pressure and cold causes low pressure and wind flows from warmer to cooler regions to even everything out. The greater the variation the stronger the wind.
It is wind that carries the storm systems that develop from the changes in levels of water vapor from warmer to cooler regions. And that steering determines where it rains and where it doesn't. Or where it's warm and where it's cold. And where it snows.
It is when you get to a global scale that the science starts to get scarce -- things like what causes the change in water temperature of a specific region of ocean? Why is it cyclical? Why aren’t cycles totally predictable?
And is it really the atmosphere that we study so carefully that determines our climate? Or is it all driven from deep below the waters of the oceans that we know so little about?