11 October 2019 13:46:16 IST

The Blob threatens the Pacific ocean, again

This map shows high Pacific Ocean surface temperatures in May 2015 as compared to the 2002–2012 average - a phenomenon called “the Blob.” Map by American Geophysical Union. Source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/02/space-map-pacific-blob/

This second oceanic heat wave could pose a further threat to marine life and push sea levels higher

The abominable blob is back. And it is horrifying. Horrifying because memories of its first visit, when it caused too many deaths and misery, is still fresh in people’s minds. Hence, the ‘Oh no, not again’ feeling along the Pacific coast. But I should, in all fairness, tell you about Blob-1, before talking of its return.

Well, the Blob is a heatwave, not on land, but on the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It encompasses an area of four million square miles, and that’s a lot of area, extending all the way from Alaska to California. When it struck between 2013 and 2016, it killed whales, sea otters, sea lions, octopuses and numerous ocean animals. Some died due to the heat, some because the warm waters encouraged an algal bloom which turned out to be too toxic; the bigger animals starved to death because there just wasn’t enough of prey, which had died earlier.

As a result, the California’s fishing industry was badly affected. The most affected were the crabbers, whose catch dwindled to almost nothing.

The ‘big’ sue

The economic hit was serious enough to cause the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association to sue Big Oil. Their plaint said that the big oil companies knew the global warming effect of their business only too well but remained apathetic about it — a reference, obviously, to Exxon, which is in the middle of a controversy. There is documentary evidence to show that Exxon knew very well about the climate changing effect of its oil business, but hushed it up, putting business interests at the forefront.

The heatwave is linked to global warming. Just as we are seeing more deadly heat waves on land, there are such things on the seas too. Only, the Blob — the name, incidentally, was given to the phenomenon by a research meteorologist, Nick Bond — was one such heat wave, and intense enough to cause notable impact.

During the Blob, ocean surface temperatures were, on an average, three degrees Celsius warmer than usual. In some places, it went up as high as 12 degrees above normal. The ocean was, almost literally, boiling. It was cooking sea life.

And now, the Blob is back. Since early last month, reports have been appearing in the local media along the Pacific coast of the United States about its return. This time, it is said to be slightly milder. But the real fear is that these heat waves could become more frequent, thanks to global warming. When these occur, they could be very disruptive, both economically and ecologically.

Oceans of carbolic acid

Now, let us turn to another related event of last month. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of scientists formed in 1987 by the World Meteorology Organisation of the United Nations to gather and present scientific evidence for climate change to aid policy-makers, came out with a special report on oceans and the cryosphere. The cryosphere refers to all the frozen parts of the earth, be it the polar regions, or the ice-capped mountainous areas.

This report is quite scary. It highlights that the oceans are absorbing the heat of the warming planet too much for their own good; they are also absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide and thereby slowly becoming oceans of carbolic acid, rather than pure sea water. Any excess of acid kills. The oceans are dying and are becoming less capable of protecting us from the global warming — created by us.

The ecological imbalance

Polar ice caps and other permafrost regions are melting away, leaving the regions exposed to disastrous consequences. One, for instance, is the expansion of species that cannot live in very cold conditions — things get warmer, these species ‘invade’ the regions that used to be out-of-bounds to them, causing disruptions in the ecological balance. Anybody who doubts the report only has to read about the Blob’s return in the newspapers of the US’ Pacific coast region.

As they absorb more heat, the oceans are expanding, and as they are fed by melting ice, they are expanding further, which means that their surface levels are rising. A few years back, the Maldives’ government held its Parliamentary meeting symbolically in the ocean; but in future, it won’t be symbolic.

Things have already gone too far. We can at best only slow down global warming — we are far from doing even that — and the consequences of what we have already done are already upon us. Ask any California fisherman.

All that remains to be done is to build enough cover to protect ourselves when it rains disasters. Incidentally, the IPCC report also says that four Indian cities are particularly vulnerable — Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Surat. But one should err on the cautious side. If you are anywhere near the coast, better start thinking of relocating deeper inside.