One Weird Name Becomes a Legacy

Nick Bond, Climate Scientist

“The Blob” is not a very scientific term. It sounds more like a child’s toy than anything. Recently, though, it has become both serious and scientific through the work of climate scientist Nick Bond.

Bond, a research meteorologist at the University of Washington and that state’s official climatologist, first coined the term in 2014 while doing a weekly radio show on weather and climate. “I actually take responsibility for that – not credit, responsibility,” he said. “When I started talking to colleagues about it – and some of it was picked up by the media, too – I would say, ‘Yeah, there’s a blob of warm water.’ Had no idea that it would take off the way it had, and now it’s part of the lexicon.”

“The Blob” was a climate event from the winter of 2013/14 to the winter of 2015/16 in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In 2013, Bond observed higher-than-normal pressure in that region. Later, he found that the water was warmer than usual. And it lasted. Bond’s “blob” was a patch of warmer-than-typical water in the northeast Pacific Ocean. It extended to an unusual depth of 300 meters, persisted for two years, and still affects the area.

Though many stories about “The Blob” have been incorrect, Bond particularly likes this 2016 National Geographic article. Photo modified & used with permission from Nick Bond.

Describing the occurrence as a “blob” certainly caught media attention. Bond received multiple interview requests every day for two or three weeks. Googling “the blob Nick Bond” will bring up results from The Seattle Times, University of Washington News, Alaska Dispatch News, CNN, USA Today, and many other sources. “I almost avoid using ‘The Blob’ now in polite company,” Bond said, laughing.

Talking about “The Blob” can be hard for Bond, who feels that he’s not always clear with non-scientists. He thinks the problem sometimes lies with his delivery and use of jargon. “I’m having to translate on the go between the language that I’m most comfortable with [scientific terms] and plain English. And that’s no cinch, right?” Consequently, his point doesn’t always come across. Many scientists face that issue, and some shy away from discussing ongoing discoveries with the public. But Bond disagrees with that approach. “If we have an important finding, and it’s with the best information we have at the time of what’s happening, we should share that.”

One of the unexpected effects of “The Blob” was the appearance of unusual sea creatures like his enormous sun fish. Nick Bond photo

In some ways, “The Blob” has become bigger than Bond now. He carried out some of the initial research, but its effects span many disciplines, including subdivisions of biology. And research continues into its possible connections to the weather. Many different researchers are involved now. Bond considers that widening a good thing, but he wishes non-scientists would approach the subject differently. Often, people try too hard to understand all the science behind the event itself. Bond thinks it’s more important to study what can be learned from it. Neither he nor his fellow scientists fully understand the impacts of “The Blob” or what it means for the future. When journalists dig into that complicated and technical subject, meaning can get muddied.

The long-term effects of Bond’s research have yet to play out. Nonetheless, he has made “The Blob,” perhaps the most unscientific term ever, into a serious topic of discussion. The idea will likely remain tied to him forever, and he hasn’t decided what he thinks of that yet. “I’m not sure if I regret it, but that’s, I guess, gonna be my legacy,” he said. “I came up with a four-letter word for an ocean phenomena.”

By Ellen Carlson, University of Alaska Anchorage