If last winter’s hurricane wasn’t scary enough, consider a ‘cold blob’

Alex, a rare January hurricane, closed in on the Azores, with warnings of wind gusts up to 100 mph and torrential rain.

Just when you thought a hurricane season that began in January couldn’t get any weirder, along comes “the cold blob.”

Climate scientists are eyeing a huge, growing plume of colder-than-average, relatively fresh water in the north Atlantic Ocean between Newfoundland and Iceland. If it is getting drawn into prevailing currents, as they suspect, it could cool off waters into the tropics.

The cooler temps would reduce the threat of tropical cyclones forming and would stir shear winds that could knock down the storms.

Great news, huh? Well, not so much.

The blob is widely thought to have formed at least partly from melting Arctic ice. If that’s accurate, it could signal a massive consequence of climate warming — changing the dynamics of the ocean currents themselves, including the Gulf Stream that influences much of the Lowcountry’s marine life and at least part of its climate.

If it continues to grow, “that could affect the entire Atlantic,” said AccuWeather.com meteorologist Dan Kottlowski.

But that’s a maybe. Other climate and current factors are at play in the phenomenon, too.

“I don’t think that this is necessarily alarming. There was a similar freshening of the far North Atlantic in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Phil Klotzbach of the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project. “I think there’s a lot of question as to what is the primary driving factor of the cold blob.”

“The cold blob” is the nickname some scientists have given the anomaly. It turned up a few years ago and has gotten larger and more persistent since, Kottlowski said.

Not so coincidentally, the pattern of winds and weather moving across the region have stayed the same during those years — a pattern that helped divert tropical cyclones from the Southeast coast.

The three hurricane seasons were relatively quiet for the United States. This year is expected to be more problematic.

The El Niño warming trend in the Pacific is waning and a La Niña cooling trend could be in place by the fall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Persistent shear winds stirred by El Niño have been largely credited by meteorologists for keeping cyclones from developing.

In La Niña years, on the other hand, more hurricanes tend to form. Klotzbach, Kottlowski and others have noted that the storms have been very bad in at least some of the transition years.

“At this point, we’re feeling that these two factors (the blob and La Niña) have the potential to cancel each other out and lead to a near-average storm season,” Klotzbach said.

Meanwhile, the storm that formed in January, Hurricane Alex with 85 mph winds, is only the third January hurricane on record. Strikingly, it formed over cooler seas than would have been expected, fighting off strong shear winds. Its strength startled hurricane specialists, and it came on the heels of a historic year of devastating climate occurrences.

Some researchers have said there are indications that climate warming is leading to fewer Atlantic hurricanes overall but stronger storms when they do develop.

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