What is going on in the Pacific Ocean can only be described as strange meteorological events that are leaving scientists scratching their heads.
Nicknamed ‘The Blob’ a vast amount of abnormally warm water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – Researchers have found that this is directly affecting the increased levels of Ozone right above Western US.
Covering around 9-10 million kilometres (4,5 million square miles) from Alaska to Mexico – was believed to just effect the Pacific Ocean, but according to a new study shows that it is also affecting the quality of the air too.
Researcher Dan Jaffe from the University of Washington Bothell said:
“Ultimately, it all links back to The Blob, which was the most unusual meteorological event we’ve had in decades.”
The warm water was first discovered in 2013, and ever since has been spreading throughout the ocean.
The vast, warm patch is now linked to several mass die-offs in the ocean during the year 2015, including thousands of California sea lions starving to death in waters more than 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, and an “unprecedented” mass death of seabirds in the Western US.
In April 2015, the effects could also be seen on land, with a bout of strange weather in the US being linked to the higher ocean temperatures, and the increased temperatures saw a massive toxic algal bloom stretch along the entire US West Coast.
Marine ecologist Jaime Jahncke from the conservation group said:
“I can’t truly give an explanation of what is going on right now.”
High sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific in May 2015, compared to the 2002-2012 average.
Credit: American Geophysical Union
Since 2004 Jaffe and the research team have been monitoring the ozone levels over US, and they realized an unusual rise back in 2015. So they wanted to know if the crazy events caused by the blob that year could also have been driving this massive increase in the ozone.
Jaffe explained in a press statement:
“At first we were like ‘Whoa, maybe we made a mistake.’ We looked at our sensors to see if we made an error in the calibration. But we couldn’t find any mistakes,”
“Then I looked at other ozone data from around the Pacific Northwest, and everybody was high that year.”
First the team had to map the exact lifespan of the blob to see if there was a connection in unprecedented detail, they used the data collected from satellites positioned all over the globe to track temperature fluctuations on the Pacific Ocean’s surface between 2014 and 2016.
After the collection of the data, they then went back and compared the events to sea-surface temperature records dating back to 1910, and what they found was unlike any natural phenomenon ever seen in recorded history.
Chelle Gentemann a team member said:
“This phenomenon is something new,”
“From that entire record, this event is unprecedented in magnitude and duration. There’s just nothing like it in our historical record.”
They found that the effects of the blob on land – warmer temperatures, low cloud cover, and calmer air – actually combined to produce extra ozone, and by June 2015, this had pushed ozone levels to between 3 and 13 parts per billion higher than average over the north-western US.
Certain areas with already high ozone levels, such as Salt Lake City and Sacramento, saw their ozone pushed above federally allowed limits.
“Washington and Oregon was really the bulls-eye for the whole thing, because of the location of the winds,”
“Salt Lake City and Sacramento were on the edge of this event, but because their ozone is typically higher, those cities felt some of the more acute effects.”
The obvious question was how could something in the ocean affect the ozone levels?
Under normal conditions, winds along the West Coast run along the surface of the ocean, and push the top layer away from the coast. This allows the colder water below to take its place, bringing vital nutrients with it, and balancing out the temperature.
But the team found that during the blob’s peak, the increased temperatures on the surface of the ocean had caused the air above heat up and stagnate. This weakened the coastal winds so much; they were no longer able to push the warm top layer of the Pacific away from the shoreline.
And with no upwelling of cool water, the high temperatures remained, and together with a lack of clouds, this allowed the chemical reaction that produces ozone – solar ultraviolet radiation (sunlight) breaking down oxygen molecules – to kick things up a notch.
“Temperatures were high, and it was much less cloudy than normal, both of which trigger ozone production,”
“And because of that high-pressure system off the coast, the winds were much lower than normal. Winds blow pollution away, but when they don’t blow, you get stagnation and the pollution is higher.”
While the ozone spike was only temporary, the team says we should take this as a warning for the future – researchers already knew there was a connection between higher atmospheric temperatures and ozone production, but now we know that sea-surface temperatures can affect it too.
And with ozone pollution known to cause serious respiratory dysfunction, including aggravating pneumonia, asthma, and bronchitis, we’d better be prepared for when something like the blob rears its head once more.
The research has been published in Geophysical Research Letters.
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