Nature Boy spent a few minutes dabbling his toes in the water at Willows Beach last week.
“I don’t feel it,” he reported. “They say a great blob of warm ocean water has moved up to the northern coast. It appears to not have arrived at Willows.”
“Maybe it’s something only marine critters can easily feel,” I said. “If you spent all day in the water, you might notice.”
“If I did that,” he said, “someone might mistake me for a great, warm blob.”
The system Nature Boy referred to first appeared in the North Pacific Ocean in late 2013. Named the Blob by one of the University of Washington researchers who discovered it, it spread across almost two million square kilometres of the Gulf of Alaska. It now plugs up the Bering Sea, and warms offshore waters all the way south to Mexico.
Acting much like the high-pressure polar-vortex systems that lobed southward over the prairies and pushed away systems of warmer air throughout the winter and spring of 2013–2014, the Blob redirects cold ocean currents from their eons-old routes. The two phenomena might not be connected.
Some unlikely warm-water species are now checking out northern latitudes as a result. Fishermen caught a skipjack tuna off Alaska last September; warm-water Velellas, relatives of sea jellies, have washed ashore at Tofino and Haida Gwaii; and rare pygmy orcas have been spotted off Washington state.
However, the Blob is primarily a dead zone. With temperatures as much as three degrees above the region’s average, it not only redirects ocean currents, it dampens the natural mixing of water layers. This affects salinity, dissolved oxygen and acidity within the water, which in turn reduces nutrients and biological productivity.
University of Victoria scientists say the Blob has already been linked to widespread changes in the distribution and abundance of marine species, including plankton, fish, mammals and birds.
The name and dire consequences might bring to mind images of fish, marine mammals and other floaty critters fleeing the Blob, much as the residents of Downington do in the 1958 movie of the same name. In the film, an extraterrestrial with an uncanny resemblance to a blob of jelly lands in rural Pennsylvania. It eats everything human in its path, including an old man, a doctor, a nurse, a janitor, a saloonful of late-night drinkers and a cinema projectionist.
Extending the film’s absurdity to the current situation, terrified creatures, holding their flippers, fins or tentacles to their heads — Edvard Munch-like — might watch in horror as the Blob’s leading edge ripples through their frigid ocean homes, munching up territory, causing critters to choke, pickle, keel over and die. Cold-water zooplankton — those often-overlooked creatures at the bottom of the ocean food chain — are said to be more scarce within the Blob than they were in those parts two years ago. As a result, young salmon emerging from B.C.’s rivers this year will have to travel farther to find food. Whether many will survive the journey remains to be seen.
Blob-induced food scarcity could also be causing increased numbers of sea lion pups to show up starving along the California and Oregon coasts.
Scientists speculate that the Blob could be contributing to the drought and low snowpack in California, Oregon and Washington. If so, we have the Blob to thank for the mild weather we’ve experienced, with little snow in our mountains and two long, brilliant summers.
It might also mean we face another bad round of forest fires this year.
As the ongoing conversation among readers and contributors to these pages indicates, the precise causes of the Blob remain uncertain, as does its end.
In the film, a young Steve McQueen and the residents of Downington stop the Blob cold by freezing it with liquid carbon dioxide from fire extinguishers.
In the real-life story of the Blob, however, cold is being pushed off-camera to other regions.
Except at Willows Beach, where Nature Boy’s feet still turn lobster-red with cold.