California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment

The California Current Marine Heatwave Tracker - Blobtracker

What is a marine heatwave?

Marine heatwaves, or MHWs, occur when ocean temperatures are much warmer than usual for an extended period of time; they are specifically defined by differences in expected temperatures for the location and time of year.1 MHWs are a growing field of study worldwide because of their effects on ecosystem structure, biodiversity, and regional economies.

In 2014 a large MHW was identified as it began dominating the northeast Pacific Ocean. Eventually known as “the blob” (Fig. 3A.), this basin-scale MHW was unique in the history of monitoring in the California Current, and persisted until mid-2016. Researchers documented many ecological effects associated with the blob, including unprecedented harmful algal blooms, shifting distributions of marine life, and changes in the marine food web.

Large marine heatwaves have occurred each of the last three years (2019, 2020, and 2021), all typically beginning during the spring in the far offshore region of the open North Pacific, impacting the US west coast during the fall, and finally terminating during late winter. These heatwaves were the 3rd, 2nd, and 7th largest heatwaves, respectively, on record for the eastern North Pacific since monitoring began in 1982 (calculated only within the analyzed region shown in Fig. 2; note some of these heatwaves were likely larger as they extended beyond the borders of this prescribed region at various times). The most recent event, marine heatwave NEP21A, which began in April 2021 and reached a maximum size of approximately 4.5 million km2 in early September 2021, fell below the area threshold (400,000 km2) for large marine heatwave classification on Dec 22, 2021 (Fig. 4B). NEP21A lasted 236 days, qualifying it as the 6th longest heatwave on record. View an animation of marine heatwave development during 2020.

To further investigate past MHW events, access this table of detailed information (i.e., size, duration, distance from shore) or yearly animations. 

What are the latest conditions?

(last updated 4/19/2022)

We continue to track the first large marine heatwave of 2022, NEP22A (Fig. 2). We have been tracking this heatwave since January 18, 2022 (Fig. 4b), when it first exceeded our size threshold of 400,000 km2. By mid-February, 2022 NEP22A had already reached an area of ~3 million km2 within our eastern North Pacific analysis region, and it continues to hover around this size. Similar to previous years, this heatwave arose in the general region where the previous year's heatwave (NEP21A) terminated, and within 30 days of its end. Thus, it is likely that the region may have had some residual warm waters which preconditioned the region for this new heatwave development.

The most recent raw SST anomaly plot (Fig. 1) suggests NEP22A is continuing to expand toward the US west coast. If this event follows the trend for the last three years, then we might expect this heatwave to continue expansion and eventually encroach on the US west coast during late fall 2022. However, this is speculative and could easily be modified based on changes in atmospheric or oceanic conditions. Similar examples from previous years include NEP20A, that formed early in 2020, dissipated in late April into several smaller dispersed features, and eventually reconnected in June 2020 to form what became the 2nd largest heatwave on record since monitoring began in 1982, but did not ultimately impact the coast until the later fall. In contrast, during 2021 NEP21A encroached directly on the central CA coast in mid-June 2021 due to a lengthy wind reversal and downwelling conditions, before later retreating offshore for the remainder of the year.

What is different this year is that NEP22A has developed nearly two months earlier than the last three years' events, setting the stage for a potentially larger event later this year. Conditions could easily be modified by less-predictable atmospheric changes, which are beyond the scope of the analysis here. Besides NEP22A offshore, there is now substantial warming in the southern California Bight. During the "blob" of 2014-15, it was the eventual merger of the offshore heatwave with warm nearshore waters off southern California which led to the unprecedented single giant heatwave of those years. 

We continue to monitor the area, duration, and coastal proximity of surface water temperatures for these features in the northeast Pacific and communicate with other researchers and policy-makers to understand the array of possible west coast impacts.

Animations and images of past years' developing heatwaves can be found here: NEP20B animationNEP19 archived images.

View new and ongoing analyses highlighting regional conditions associated with individual west coast National Marine Sanctuaries and states (Washington, Oregon, and northern, central, and southern California).

What is the MHW Tracker?

Developed by oceanographers from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center as an experimental tool for natural resource managers, the California Current MHW Tracker is a program designed to understand, describe, and provide a historical context for the 2014-16 blob.2 It also produces a range of indices that could help forecast or predict future MHWs expected to impact our coast.

Because the blob dramatically affected natural resources, including economically valuable fisheries, predictive forecasts will help natural resource managers, businesses, and coastal communities anticipate changes and mitigate possible damages in the future.

The California Current MHW Tracker automatically analyzes sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTa) from 1984- present, with a particular focus on detecting the presence of significant ”blob-class” events. Sea surface temperature (SST) data were obtained from a variety of different platforms (satellites, ships, buoys) on a regular global grid at a resolution of 1/4°.

We found that blob-class MHWs can be classified based on their strength (>1.29 times the standard deviation of the SSTa field; e.g., the top 90% of the data), along with their areal extent, and duration. The original 2014-16 blob had contiguous patches which lasted more than six months and were >4,500,000 km2 in area. Based on our thresholding criteria, we suggest that the MHWs most likely to cause impacts to the west coast will be roughly 3 x the area of Alaska, come within 250 km of the coast, and last at least three months.

Project leads

Andrew Leising and Steven Bograd (SWFSC)

 

Figure 1

Figure 1: Daily sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTa) in the California Current ecosystem. An animation of daily images through 2020 can be viewed here. SST data from Multi-scale Ultra-high Resolution (MUR) SST Analysis Anomaly (https://coastwatch.pfeg.noaa.gov/erddap/griddap/jplMURSST41anom1day.html).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Science-quality (delayed 3-weeks), daily interpolated standardized sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTa) in the California Current ecosystem available for analysis of MHW presence. Dark outline shows the current extent of MHW conditions, as delineated by values of the normalized SST + 1.29 SD from normal. Blue dashed line represents the US West Coast EEZ. SST data from NOAA's Optimum interpolation Sea Surface Temperature analysis (OISST; https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oisst), with the SST anomaly calculated using climatology from NOAA's AVHRR-only OISST dataset.

Maximum areal extent of 2014 MHW vs. 2021 MHW

Figure 3A.(left): The MHW known as "the blob" at its near maximum areal extent in September 2014; 3B.(right) The 2021 MHW (NEP21) at its near maximum areal extent in September 2021. Figure details as in Figure 2.

 

Figure 4 area vs time, 1982 to present

Figure 4 area vs time, last 12 months

Figure 4A: Retrospective analysis of sea surface temperature anomalies in the California Current region, 1982-present. Figure shows the total surface area from the entire study region (Fig. 2) in heatwave status over time. Thin horizontal line indicates the area threshold cutoff (approx. 400,000 km2) used for tracking and analysis of MHWs. Color indicates the % of the US west coast EEZ (area within blue dashed line, Fig. 2) in heatwave status. 4B: Daily estimated area of SST anomalies in the California Current region over the previous 12 months, color coded (as above) by relative EEZ coverage.

Figure 5 one year area and intensity

Figure 5: Top graph shows the total % of the US west coast EEZ (not including waters off of Alaska) that is classified as in "heatwave" status over the past year. Left lower panel shows the region covered by the EEZ (blue dashed line) and then subregions: WA (1), OR (2), northern CA (3), central CA (4), and southern CA (5). Lower colored panel indicates the % coverage within each subregion that is in heatwave status. View detailed information about these individual regions, including interactive plots and a variety of MHW indicator outputs.