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Bidding farewell to 'the blob'

Scientists predicted patch of warm ocean water would bring a warmer-than-usual winter

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The blob is dying.

A University of Victoria oceanographer says the patch of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that scientists predicted would bring a warmer-than-normal winter to B.C. is finally starting to dissipate.

According to Dr. Richard Dewey, who also serves as the associate director for science with Ocean Networks Canada, strong gulf winds have begun to break up the 1,000-kilometre-wide strip of ocean water commonly referred to as "the blob."

"We had a number of strong wind events in November and December and that's continuing through to January now where we're getting these storm tracks coming across the Gulf of Alaska," Dewey said.

Two degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding ocean, the blob has been blamed for warming inland temperatures and leaving ski hills bare the past two winters.

"We've had a much better start to the ski season because in some sense the storm track has changed and we're back to more typical conditions," added Dewey. "But it also means those storms and that wind are also now mixing down the ocean and mixing out that heat."

Add in the potential impacts of another El Niño year, and the 2015-16 winter was predicted to be another unseasonably warm season. With consistent sub-zero temperatures in Whistler, however, that hasn't come to pass quite yet, but Dewey said it's possible the abundance of snow the resort has been seeing will dry up.

"There's a possibility if El Niño continues... that by the end of January and into February we could be drying out up here and we could go into a situation where we started off with a good ski season and it fades," he noted. "But as long as there are storms coming across the Gulf of Alaska, I think we're in good shape."

The weakening blob is also the result of broader atmospheric changes, like shifting air currents that scientists have observed.

"The oceanographic community sort of keyed into this anomaly and realized the atmosphere had changed dramatically to give rise to the blob," said Dewey. "But in parallel, the atmosphere was also changing dramatically in other ways: the jet stream was shifting offshore... (which) meant that instead of the Pineapple Express coming into our latitude, it was now heading up into Alaska." Cooler ocean temperatures — which help bring vital nutrients to the surface — means dwindling salmon populations should also be on the rebound, although Dewey said it could be a few years before salmon runs return to their pre-blob levels.

"The same storms mixing out the heat are mixing up nutrients and that gives us reason to be optimistic for ecosystems getting through 2016," he said. "It can take a while for that to kick in, and there's certainly been a malnourished northeast Pacific for the last couple of years, so we're hoping 2016 is a turnaround."

While Whistler has so far enjoyed a strong winter, scientists are predicting El Niño's impact on global temperatures could be even larger in 2016 than last year.

"Whilst a strong El Niño event is currently in progress, the impact of El Niño (and La Niña) on global annual mean temperatures is typically strongest in the second calendar year of the event," a recent World Meteorogical Organization report stated, "and hence the year whose annual mean temperature is likely to be most strongly influenced by the current El Niño is 2016 rather than 2015."

When the last El Niño of similar size developed in 1997, global temperatures were the highest on record at the time. In the second year of the super El Niño, temperatures climbed even higher, and 1998 still ranks as the fifth warmest on record.

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