DATE: September 24, 2020
SNIP: Six years ago, a huge part of the Pacific Ocean near North America quickly warmed, reaching temperatures more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Nicknamed “the blob,” it persisted for two years, with devastating impacts on marine life, including sea lions and salmon.
The blob was a marine heat wave, the oceanic equivalent of a deadly summer atmospheric one. It was far from a solitary event: Tens of thousands have occurred in the past four decades, although most are far smaller and last for days rather than years. The largest and longest ones have occurred with increasing frequency over time.
On Thursday, scientists revealed the culprit. Climate change, they said, is making severe marine heat waves much more likely.
The study, published in the journal Science, looked at the blob and six other large events around the world, including one in the Northwest Atlantic in 2012. Human-caused global warming made these events at least 20 times more likely, the researchers found.
“Some of these couldn’t even have occurred without climate change,” said Charlotte Laufkötter, a marine scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and the lead author of the study.
In a world with no human-caused warming, a large marine heat wave would have had about a one-tenth of 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year — what is called a thousand-year event. But with the current rate of global warming, an ocean heat wave like that could soon have as much as a 10 percent chance of occurring, the study found.
Dr. Laufkötter said the likelihood of these large events would continue to increase as the world keeps warming. And if emissions of greenhouse gases continue at a high level for decades and average global temperatures reach about 5 degrees above preindustrial levels, some parts of the oceans may be in a continuous state of extreme heat.
In effect, the blob may become permanent. Already, a marine heat wave resembling the blob has emerged in the past year off northwestern North America.
The oceans absorb most of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases. But Dr. Moore, who studies the ecological impacts of these heat waves, said it is how fast the water warms, rather than its ultimate temperature, that is most damaging to marine organisms. “That rate of heat rising is just too quick for their physiology to cope with,” she said. “It leads to reduced growth rates, heightened risk of disease and greater mortality.”