You can ignore claims that global warming is responsible for drought in California and massive snowstorms in the northeast, according to a new study. These, and other odd weather events, could be caused by a massive “blob” of warm water in the Pacific Ocean.
A peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, argues a long-lived massive “blob” of warm water — that’s 1,000 miles in each direction and 300 feet deep — contributed to Washington state’s mild 2014 winter and possibly warmer-than-normal conditions this summer.
“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year,” said lead author Nick Bond, a climate scientist at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.
The study added that the “blob” helped cause drought conditions on the West Coast and predicts the “blob” persisting through the end of this year. Thus, warmer-than-normal temperatures on the West Coast are due to less winter cooling, not more heating.
What’s most interesting about the “blob,” however, is that it’s not caused by global warming, but it produces conditions on the West Coast that are similar to those scientists would expect to occur from global temperature rises.
“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Bond said. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”
But the “blob’s” influence may not end at the West Coast, as the study says it’s part of a broader trend in the Pacific that could have helped cause the last two extremely cold winters people had to suffer through in eastern U.S. states.
Bond’s study presents a new angle to arguments put forward by climate scientists that global warming was driving the extreme winter weather in the Eastern U.S. while simultaneously causing warmer weather in the west.
While the city of Boston was getting covered in 110 inches of snow this past winter, a Massachusetts Institute for Technology climate scientist argued that global warming was causing massive snowstorms on the East Coast.
“In some regions, fairly cold regions, you could have a decrease in the average snowfall in a year, but actually an intensification of the snowfall extremes,” MIT scientist Paul O’Gorman told the Boston Globe.
Other scientists argue that warming has allowed more precipitation into the atmosphere, causing bigger snowstorms. This warming, they say, is dominantly caused by human activities.
“Heavy snows mean the temperature is just below freezing, any cooler and the amount would be a lot less,” Kevin Trenberth, a climate researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the Washington Post.
“Warmer waters off the coast help elevate winter temperatures and contribute to the greater snow amounts. This is how global warming plays a role,” Trenberth said.
But what if natural cycles in the Pacific Ocean actually are driving wacky winter weather? A second study by University of Washington climate scientist Dennis Hartmann argues the “blob” discovered by Bond is just one part of a bigger cycle in the Pacific.
It’s these larger conditions that could have led to frigid East Coast winters, according to Hartmann, not the widely reported “polar vortex” scientists were blaming last year.
Hartmann’s study argues that a regular pattern in the Pacific, the North Pacific mode, sent warm, dry air to the western U.S. while simultaneously sending cold, wet air to the east. This pattern also helps cause the “blob” identified by Bond’s study.
“Lately this mode seems to have emerged as second to the El Niño Southern Oscillation in terms of driving the long-term variability, especially over North America,” Hartmann said in a statement.
“It’s an interesting question if that’s just natural variability happening or if there’s something changing about how the Pacific Ocean decadal variability behaves,” Hartmann said. “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.”
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