Ocean phenomenon called 'the blob' could have big impact on Minnesota's winter

Remember the harsh cold during the winter of 2013-14?
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The warming of ocean water off the coast of Alaska is still in place. It has been since 2013, and the warmth of those waters has a history of having a dramatic affect on winter weather in the United States. 

According to a fascinating article in the Washington Post, the warming of the water off Alaska's coast is known as "the blob," and it's capable of bringing temperature extremes to the Lower 48. 

The blob was strong from 2013-2015, two winters where frigid conditions and big snowstorms plagued the eastern half of the U.S. while record-breaking heat scorched the West. Minnesota was among the places that took the brunt of the cold winter of 2013-14. 

It was just four years ago that the "polar vortex" became a household phrase when the arctic phenomenon dragged its way into Minnesota and gave the Twin Cities 53 nights of temperatures at or below zero in 2014, and 92 such days further north in International Falls. 

This from the Minnesota DNR climate journal

"A generation of elementary and high school children will not forget January, 2014. This was the month that had five days of school canceled due to the cold wind chills in the Twin Cities. The coldest wind chill temperature was -48 at the Twin Cities on January 6th and for the state it was -63 degrees at the Grand Marais Airport."

Polar Vortex January 2014

A map showing the cold temperatures from the January 2014 Polar Vortex. 

The blob, according to the Washington Post, forces the jet stream to arc north of it and then dive into the Lower 48. The West gets warmer and the East gets colder. Minnesota, falling in the middle, can be on the receiving end of warm and cold.

On Thursday, the National Weather Service released an updated long-range forecast for the upcoming winter, and it suggested there's a 40 percent chance Minnesota experiences warmer than normal temperatures November through February, while we'll have equal chances of more or less snow than normal. 

That doesn't guarantee a warmer winter is coming, it only notes what the long-range computer models favor. And the NWS was careful to point out that Minnesota could just as easily be on the receiving end of cold blasts of arctic air. 

Does it really have a defined impact on Minnesota?

Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist with the DNR State Climatology Office, doesn't think the blob makes it any easier to predict winter in Minnesota. 

"I am not too excited about our ability to predict winter here (or anywhere) based on the existence of the so-called blob," Blumenfeld said in an email to Bring Me The News. 

"Some version of it has emerged each of the last five Octobers, and the winters that followed have been, in order, extremely cold, highly variable, outstandingly warm, short and sweet, and pretty typical but with a long ending. The current pattern in the North Pacific resembles that of 2014-15 more so than 2013-14, but it's still only a faint resemblance."

Not only that, but Blumenfeld says "even the best seasonal forecasters can't tell you what to expect" when there are two large areas of warm water in the Pacific, which exists this year with a developing El Nino and the blob.

And don't even get Blumenfeld started on how the warmer than normal ocean temperatures in the Atlantic will play a role: "we have a lot of uncertainty right now." 

The blob was very strong 2013-2015, meaning ocean temps within the blob stayed warmer than normal thanks to consistent high pressure. In turn, that kept the jet stream up in Canada and over the top of the western U.S. before diving south into the central and eastern portions of the country.

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At this point, according to the Washington Post, the blob is following a similar pattern to what it did in 2016. It was very strong during fall 2016, leading forecasters to believe another ice-cold winter was on tap for the East. It died out and the extreme, consistent cold never arrived. 

Only time will tell if the blob dies out again in 2018. Either way, Minnesota is in the middle ground of its impacts, so being prepared for anything – the way we always do it – is probably good advice. 

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