Cold Atlantic 'blob' puzzles scientists

Story highlights

  • An Atlantic Ocean blob is abnormally cold in a year that will probably shatter records as the warmest globally
  • In an area of the North Atlantic, the ocean surface is much cooler than normal
  • In fact, it's record cold in some locations

(CNN)At first glance, it stands out like a sore thumb. That blob of blue and purple on the map. One of the only places on the globe that is abnormally cold in a year that will probably shatter records as the warmest globally.

It's being called the Atlantic blob. It's a large area in the North Atlantic that is seeing a pronounced cooling trend. The ocean surface is much cooler than normal and, in fact, record cold in some locations.
Scientists began to notice it developing over the last couple of years, and this cooling in the Atlantic is the complete opposite of the warming over in the Pacific. Much of the warming is attributed to El Nino, a natural process where warm water sloshes over the Central Pacific and extends to South America, but scientists are unable to completely explain what has been dubbed the Pacific blob. This pronounced warming over large areas of the entire Pacific Basin has fueled a well above average season for hurricanes and typhoons over the entire Pacific, and it could have contributed to the California drought, effects on the salmon industry and even tropical sharks seen in waters farther north than ever before.
    The Atlantic cold blob is near Greenland. You may not expect to see such a pronounced cooling that far north. After all, we know that most of the documented climate change has affected the poles much more than equatorial regions. Greenland is home to an enormous sheet of ice.
    In fact, if you combine the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, you will find 99% of the fresh water ice on Earth. Scientists believe it is the melting of ice in Greenland that is causing the cold anomaly.
    A recent study by top climatologists shows that massive ice loss is occurring over Greenland and is disturbing the normal Atlantic Ocean circulation, called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, or AMOC. You may be familiar with part of this circulation, the Gulf Stream, which brings warm, tropical surface water northward along the East Coast of the United States and funnels toward the poles. The other main current in the AMOC is a return flow of deep, cold water that runs southward from the poles toward the tropics. This current has dramatic effects on our weather globally. The heat and cold driven by the current transfer to the atmosphere and help drive our weather patterns.
    Normally, cold salt water in the North Atlantic sinks, because it is denser, and it is replaced by warm water moving in from the south. A similar process drives the high and low pressure systems and jet stream that drive our weather. In this case, the study suggests that the massive amounts of fresh water melting into the ocean from Greenland can prevent the sinking of the dense, cold, salty water and alter the AMOC circulation.
    Believe it or not, this was the very scenario in the popular movie "The Day After Tomorrow." In the movie, the global climate changes in a matter of days, causing tornadoes in Los Angeles, deadly hail in Tokyo and a massive blizzard in New York City.
    Fortunately "The Day After Tomorrow" scenario is Hollywood fiction at its best, and not based on sound science. That said, there is cause for concern.
    While there is no scientific consensus that the Pacific and Atlantic blobs are related to climate change, there is evidence that they are. The effects of that relationship -- while not like those portrayed in the movie -- could still be severe. The loss of the normal ocean circulation could cause drastic shifts in weather patterns, and continued loss of ice in Greenland will lead to the continued rise in sea level, threatening coastal cities around the globe.