Beginning in September 2014 and stretching into 2016, Monterey Bay experienced the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded. Spanning the entire West Coast up to Alaska, this oceanic anomaly – termed “the Blob” due to its appearance on a sea surface temperature map – resulted in several ecological disasters in Monterey County including California’s worst drought in 1,200 years, the closing of the Dungeness crab fishery and the most harmful algal bloom ever recorded on the West Coast.
On Sept. 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the emergence of another marine heat wave in the North Pacific, noting that it looks suspiciously like the previous blob that occurred five years ago. NOAA’s report describes the potential blob as a mass of unusually warm water that has “quickly grown in much the same way, in the same area, to almost the same size.”
Scientists are hesitant to yell fire just yet. Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist and biological oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, says, “I don’t think there’s going to be a severe impact on weather yet – it’s a tough call.”
What is normal weather? Winds that typically cause warm water offshore to cool down and mix are strong in the spring and summer. But when winds move inland, evaporation and mixing are weaker, leading to more warm water.
Warmer water resulted in algal blooms in Monterey Bay in the fall and winter of 2015, which contaminated Dungeness crabs with domoic acid. (The toxin, if eaten by humans, can cause illness and even death.) The algae led the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to postpone the opening of crab fishing season, resulting in $20 million in direct losses to fishermen compared to previous years.
Moss Landing crab fisherman Calder Deyerle turned to other fisheries, like rockfish and sablefish, to keep his business afloat. “Staying diverse is how I’ve survived,” he says. “But that’s not an option for everybody. This is my livelihood; my family’s well-being is at stake.”
Deyerle joined the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, created by CDFW in 2015, comprising fishermen and representatives of environmental organizations to tackle another negative outcome of warmer waters four years ago: whale entanglements. As crab harvesting season shifts, coinciding with migration season, entanglements increase.
First responders are also preparing for weird weather and convened for a planning session on Sept. 25. “What we’re now preaching is standard preparedness techniques,” says Patrick Moore, a Monterey County emergency services planner. “Check on your neighbors, think of your pets, your kids, have an emergency kit ready. The process is the same, no matter what the weather turns out to be.”