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Weather conditions on Quadra and Clavert Island

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Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of the Pacific - Hakai Institute

Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of the Pacific

Have we seen the end of the “Blob” in BC? Not so fast.

Leo Pontier takes a plankton sample off Quadra Island. Photo by Grant Callegari

El Niño and the “Blob.” Two warm-water masses in the Pacific, wreaking havoc on everything from weather patterns to ocean creatures. The Blob, a 100-meter-thick accumulation of anomalously warm water, first appeared in the northeast Pacific in late 2013. In tandem with one of the strongest El Niños in recent years, the Pacific conditions are unprecedented right now.

The Hakai Institute’s two field stations in British Columbia have a front row seat to these dynamic ocean conditions, but oceanographers all along the Pacific are challenged with monitoring this drama across a vast geographical area. Constant monitoring is critical. Ocean conditions don’t stay static for long.

Recently, NOAA reported that the Blob is dissipating, at least on the ocean’s surface. But does that truly spell the end of the Blob?

“We have to be careful about just looking at sea surface temperatures. That doesn’t really tell us the whole picture,” says Jennifer Jackson, a Hakai Institute oceanographer.

She attended last week’s gathering at the University of Washington of 180 oceanographers from western North America to discuss the anomalous conditions in the Pacific.

Much of the surface waters where the Blob once dominated have cooled to seasonal temperatures. But Hakai oceanographers have found that below the top layer, at a depth of 30 to 80 meters, the waters of the BC Central Coast are still, on average, 1 to 2 degrees Celcius warmer than usual. The Blob is still there—it’s just a bit deeper.

Oceanographers aren’t sure what this deeper warm water mass will do, partly because even with off-shore monitoring sites like Line P and Ocean Station Papa, there were gaps in localized, long-term data for considerable portions of the BC coastline.

The Hakai Institute is stepping in to fill these gaps. Jackson, along with fellow Hakai Institute oceanographers Wiley Evans and Brian Hunt, are exploring how local ocean conditions are changing on the Central Coast of BC and around the Discovery Islands off northeastern Vancouver Island.

Regular plankton tows provide information about the biological base of the food chain. Water chemistry and salinity from various depths are being analyzed. The physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the ocean are being sampled year-round.

January water temperatures in Pruth Bay, British Columbia adjacent to the Hakai Institute Calvert Island Field Station. There were notably warmer temperatures throughout the water column in 2015 as part of the widespread phenomenon referred to as the Blob. Temperatures cooled in 2016, but are still above average for the region.

To integrate these local data in with ocean cycles across the northeast Pacific, the Hakai Institute recently joined NANOOS—The Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems—a collaboration of partners monitoring ocean conditions from Oregon to Alaska.

“There’s an awful lot going on that we still don’t understand yet. It’s amazing in this day and age how little we know about much of BC’s coastal waters. We don’t have a long time series for a lot of this area. This is why we’ve set up the long-term sampling at the Hakai Institute,” says Jackson.

Understanding how phenomena like the Blob interact with other cycles such as El Niño is critical, as is keeping an eye on how ocean conditions affect coastal ecosystems and industries such as fisheries. Apart from monitoring the impacts on marine life, the Institute also monitors how these exceptional ocean conditions affect vital pieces of the coastal ecosystem such as seagrass meadows, kelp forests, and plankton communities.

Jackson adds, “We don’t know how resilient creatures will be after a few straight years of extreme ocean conditions. These local sampling efforts will allow us to keep track of what is going on.”