Arctic Warming & the Quieting of Winds Bring Whispers of Environmental and Economic Change to Oregon

By Dr. Rachael D. Mueller, postdoctoral researcher at Earth & Space Research and graduate of Oregon State University’s College of Oceanographic & Atmospheric Sciences

An image from @EarthWindMap shows the world’s wind in green. Scientists are discovering connections between the warming Arctic, high greenhouse gases, and wind levels. (Image credit: https://earth.nullschool.net)

The sound of a warm Arctic is quiet. I’m not talking about the lack of brackish noise that will be absent once crackling sea-ice goes away. Surely, that noise will be replaced by the hum of container ships bringing consumer goods to and from Oregon ports. The quiet that I’m talking about is from a reduction in winds.

The not-so-quiet impact to the Oregon economy from a lack of wind was experienced between 2013–2015. The cause of this impact is an elegant story about physics, physiology, and preconditioning, that is still an area of active research. It’s a scientifically rich story of planetary dynamic that is awe-inspiring.

Allow me to explain so you can join me in this awe.

The Oregon climate is conditioned by the temperatures of the North Pacific Ocean, which are strongly affected by winter winds that help mix and, hence, cool the north pacific. Winds, of course, are caused by temperature differentials: The bigger the difference between hot and cold, the stronger the wind. The smaller the difference…well…you get the idea. On a very simple level, heating the Arctic by increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reduces the temperature differential between the poles and the equator. This reduction in the temperature gradient reduces the overall winds in both the ocean and the atmosphere.

The earth’s winds stilled under conditions of high greenhouse gases and a warm Arctic.

The precedent for this connection between amplified warming in the Arctic due to increased greenhouse gases and a reduction in overall winds is perhaps best understood via past climates. As Dr. Peter Ward of the University of Washington points out, high levels of greenhouse gases at certain times in the past were accompanied by hot and quiet conditions. The earth’s winds grow still under conditions of high greenhouse gases and a warm Arctic.

Given that science is a process, it’s no surprise that we are still working to understanding how a warmer Arctic contributed to quieting of winds in the North Pacific Ocean that led to the 2013–2015 event. What is clear is that the wintertime winds that usually help cool the surface ocean in the North Pacific were reduced in 2013, and this reduction of wintertime winds created a surface ocean temperature that was more than three standard deviations warmer than usual.

Map showing position of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly, aka The Blob, in the northeast Pacific Ocean in March 2015. (Image credit: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division at Boulder, Colorado via Alaska Public Radio)

By summer of 2014, the difference in surface ocean heat between observed and normal temperatures looked like a bulls-eye “blob” larger than Alaska on maps of anomalous temperatures of the Pacific.

The consequences of this anomalous heat in the north pacific included several chain reactions that Oregonians will continue to feel the impact from for years to come. The main problem was that this heat stayed….not just for one year…but for two!

Oregonians and other ocean creatures may have been able to shrug off the first year of the blob, but it was nearly impossible to ignore the impact of it by the second year. The sound — or lack of it, rather — of this blob in Oregon was a quieting of the tail slapping noise made by spawning salmon in our rivers, an absence of celebration from harvesting shellfish along our beaches, and a lack of ski traffic on our highways.

Warm water in 2015 killed Oregon’s sockeye salmon like this one found in the lower Deschutes River. (Photo courtesy of Steve Pribyl, The Deschutes River Alliance.)

It’s worth pausing to notice this quieting because these wind conditions may represent a perfect storm between natural variability and a climatic shift that is being fueled by greenhouse gas emissions and characterized by a rapidly warming Arctic. This change matters to Oregonians because it impacts the things we love, like fish, shellfish, and skiing.

Oregonians should care about keeping the Arctic cold, because a cold Arctic will help us preserve the mid-latitude winds that supports plenty of snow, healthy salmon, and shellfish in Oregon.

The conditions created by the blob between 2013 and 2015 simply didn’t support the nutritive needs of salmon [as well as normal conditions] because warmer blob waters shifted the species available for salmon to feed on. As a result, many of the Oregon-spawning salmon died. These salmon are a crucial part of our ecosystem.

The warming of the North Pacific Ocean: the image above shows sea-surface temperature anomalies in the Pacific from July to December during the initial phases of El Niño events of 1982, 1997, 2015. What sets 2015 apart is that the northeast Pacific was already anomalously warm prior to the arrival of the El Niño, due to “The Blob”. (Image credit: NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.)

The message of warmer water was communicated to salmon via anomalously high stream temperatures. Many salmon responded to this information by refusing to enter our streams to spawn because they detected that the temperature of these streams were too hot for them to survive. Others, however, entered and ended up being decimated due to the warm water.

More than a quarter million sockeye salmon returning from the ocean to spawn are either dead or dying in the Columbia River and its tributaries due to warming water temperatures. Federal and state fisheries biologists say the warm water is lethal for the cold-water species and is wiping out at least half of this year’s return of 500,000 fish. — Associated Press (7/15/2015)

The blob also served as an incubator for a biotoxin-producing, marine micro-algae called Pseudo-nitzschia. “Biotoxin” is a fancy way of saying poison. The warm water from the blob introduced an imbalance in the marine ecosystem off our Oregon coast that supported a bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia together with the biotoxins they release. This bloom led to massive, wide-spread and synchronized closure of shell fisheries along the entire western seaboard of the United States.

An oyster at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Oregon. Oregon’s shellfish industry is threatened by warmer ocean temperatures and the increase in ocean acidification. (Photo credit: Oregon State University)

In addition to impacting our marine life, the blob also turned our winter snow into rain — so our ski resorts, instead of being full of skiers, were empty.

Clearly, this “blob” event is attention demand, but how is it related to a warming Arctic?

The challenge in answering this question is that the dynamics of this system are…well…dynamic. They are also integrated. We know that greenhouse gas warming will amplify the warming in the Arctic and that this warming will lead to a reduction in the mid-latitude planetary winds; but we don’t yet know whether or how the changes we are observing in the Arctic are currently impacting mid-latitude winds. It’s very plausible that a warmer arctic helped manifest the blob event, but this is still an area of active research.

That’s the challenge with living in the petri dish of our own experiment; scientific understanding of these unprecedented events is almost always going to lag our observations of them. Even so, it’s safe to say that a warming arctic is affecting planetary dynamics and the blob event is an example of how we might expect to experience the result of this change in planetary dynamics. It’s also safe to say that the economic and ecological consequences of this change are attention demanding.

The economic impact to Oregon from this simple shift in winds between 2013 and 2015 is still being calculated, but the closures of shell fisheries across the western U.S. alone is likely in the millions. This economic impact — together with the future impacts of a warm Arctic on mid-latitude winds — makes it uncertain whether the benefits to commerce from increased shipping routes through an ice-free Arctic will outweigh the loss we experience in other industries.

Oregon’s famous Mount Hood. Snow levels in the Beaver State have been unpredictable in recent years. (Photo credit: Graham Montgomery, Flickr — Creative Commons.)

One thing is for sure: the best way to continue increasing heat in the Arctic and quieting of mid-latitude winds is to remain committed to emitting greenhouse gases.

For more information, visit the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, Blob blog, Northwest Fisheries Science Center Harmful Algal Blooms Program, Influence of Blob on Oregon Snowpack, and Pacific Anomalies Workshop webpages.

About the Author: Dr. Rachael D. Mueller is a freelance oceanographer and educator. She investigates how complex ocean interactions affect the things we care about. Her primary tool for understanding ocean dynamics is numerical modeling of ocean circulation, but her passion for observational oceanography helps to inform and enhance her numerical modeling work. A broad scientific background in paleoclimate, geophysics, and aeronomy enhances Dr. Mueller’s expertise in polar, physical oceanography. She earned her Ph.D. at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanographic & Atmospheric Sciences and is currently working to develop a cross-disciplinary research platform that will help integrate scientific advancements with the greatest needs of society.

Special Thanks to:

Meghan Dalton, Dr. Jennifer Hutchings, and Dr. Kelly McCusker for their thoughtful feedback and commentary on this blog post.

Drs. Nate Mantua, Vera Trainer, and Laurie Weitkamp for their insights to the the blob, it’s underlying causes, and its ecological consequences.

Paul Vandevelder for his encouragement.

Dr. Philip Rasch for his guidance.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.