National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2021

Subsurface evolution and persistence of marine heatwaves in the northeast Pacific

Scannell, H.A., G.C. Johnson, L. Thompson, J.M. Lyman, and S.C. Riser

Geophys. Res. Lett., 47(23), e2020GL090548, doi: 10.1029/2020GL090548, View online (open access) (2020)

The reappearance of a northeast Pacific marine heatwave (MHW) sounded alarms in late summer 2019 for a warming event on par with the 2013–2016 MHW known as The Blob. Despite these two events having similar magnitudes in surface warming, differences in seasonality and salinity distinguish their evolutions. We compare and contrast the ocean's role in the evolution and persistence of the 2013–2016 and 2019–2020 MHWs using mapped temperature and salinity data from Argo floats. An unusual near‐surface freshwater anomaly in the Gulf of Alaska during 2019 increased the stability of the water column, preventing the MHW from penetrating deep as strongly as the 2013–2016 event. This freshwater anomaly likely contributed to the intensification of the MHW by increasing the near‐surface buoyancy. The gradual buildup of subsurface heat content throughout 2020 in the region suggests the potential for persistent ecological impacts.

Plain Language Summary Surface marine heatwaves (MHWs) are periods of prolonged and extremely warm regional sea surface temperature that can negatively impact the health and productivity of marine ecosystems. Using surface and subsurface ocean observations, we compare and contrast two recent MHWs to show that salinity variations play an important role in the vertical distribution of temperature anomalies by changing the overall stability of the water column. During the 2019–2020 MHW, the near‐surface waters in the Gulf of Alaska were fresher than normal, preventing warm sea surface temperatures from mixing as deeply into the subsurface as in the 2013–2016 MHW. The freshening in 2019 likely enhanced warming in the buoyant surface layer. As warmer temperatures gradually mix downward they can persist long after the surface MHW disappears, suggesting that the ocean can provide memory for long‐lived MHWs. The subsurface persistence of MHWs has potential ramifications for long‐lasting ecological impacts.

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