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Scientists Puzzled By Warmer Ocean Waters Off Santa Barbara Coast

Unpredictable winds push temperatures to mid-60s while current conditions bring unusual sightings of tuna and turtles

Local beachgoers have been enjoying warmer ocean waters this summer. Although scientists aren’t sure of the reason, water temperatures are in the mid-60s these days — 10 degrees warmer than usual. Click to view larger
Local beachgoers have been enjoying warmer ocean waters this summer. Although scientists aren’t sure of the reason, water temperatures are in the mid-60s these days — 10 degrees warmer than usual. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk)

Chris Voss has been a commercial diver off the coast of Santa Barbara for more than 20 years.

During that time, he’s seen a lot of strange things; El Niño years, the heavy winds, the lack of them, the good catches, and the seasons that were less bountiful.

And this summer there’s something else that’s a bit unusual going on: warmer ocean waters.

As anyone who has ever touched the water here knows, the ocean off the South Coast is cold. Brrr. But in addition to the lack of heavy rains, this year’s oddball wind patterns have contributed to noticeably warmer waters, changes in the catch, and a new array of critters hanging out closer to our shores.

“There have been some sightings of turtles recently in this area that don’t happen every day and that’s because of the warmer water surge,” said Voss, a former abalone and sea urchin diver and lobster fisherman, who still dives for sea cucumbers commercially. “Warmer water surges influence what we catch.”

Scientists are befuddled over the unpredictable wind patterns, which have contributed to a lack of rain, erratic weather and warmer water temperatures. The first seven months of 2014 have been the hottest on record in California, and so far this summer the water temperatures off the Southern California coast have risen to the low-to-mid-60s from the mid-50s.

“We have had a warm ocean,” said Nate Mantua, a research scientist for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. “The wind patterns have been unusual and persistent.”

A lack of winds from the north have been supplanted by stronger winds from the south, which is pushing the typically warm ocean water closer to the coast. High pressure has steered the jet stream in the opposite direction, reversing the up-welling off the coast.

“There is no good answer for why this is happening,” Mantua said. The warmer waters, he said, are affecting the fish catch and could continue to do so well into next year.

“It has an impact on marine life,” he said. “The big pelagic critters you usually go to Baja for are coming up to U.S. waters.”

He also said yellowtail, yellowfin and bluefin tuna could become more present if the warm waters continue. There’s already an increase in anchovies, up the coast, which increases the number of squid that feed off it, he added.

“There’s a lot of marine life doing well,” Mantua said.

The warm water, however, could have some downsides. If it lasts too long, Mantua said, the food chain could face disruptions.

“It changes the whole community of sea life out there,” he said.

Despite the warm weather, Mantua said it’s not a sign of a pending El Niño, a periodic major storm that starts along the equator in the middle of the Pacific and moves toward the Western coast. Earlier this year scientists expected a massive El Niño, but they are not so sure now.

“It doesn’t look like it will be a strong event,” he said.

For Voss, the president of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, the strange weather is just part of life off the Santa Barbara coast.

“It is just a super dynamic situation,” he said. “We’re in a transition zone, where warm and cold water currents collide from the north and south. We deal with a variety of water temperatures on a regular basis.

“It’s not a totally unheard of situation. You could almost characterize it as normal every five to 10 years.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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