Some Whale Strandings Might Be Caused By Solar Storms

A humpback whale calf stranded on Baranof Island in Alaska. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC

The often unexplainable mass beachings of whales, dolphins, and porpoises have puzzled scientists for decades. NASA scientists are now investigating one the most intriguing theories out there, with a new research project looking into the idea that mysterious cetacean strandings might be caused by solar storms.

Here’s how the theory works. Solar storms involve massive bright bursts of radiation, plasma, and electromagnetic energy from the Sun. When this solar wind hits the Earth's ionosphere, it can affect the Earth’s own magnetic field. These disturbances are powerful enough to disable satellites, cause problems for power grids, and disrupt GPS-navigation systems.

As part of their sensory arsenal, marine mammals partially rely on magnetic fields to navigate their way around the seas. It seems possible then that if a solar storm can disturb a GPS, it could confuse the navigational compass of an animal.

To investigate this link, the researchers want to sift through NASA's space-weather databases, as well as stranding data gathered by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. With this huge bank of data at their disposal, the team of marine biologists and space-weather experts hope to carry out the first rigorous analysis of whether there is a link between mass strandings and space-weather disturbances.

“We estimate that records on the order of hundreds of cetacean mass strandings will be available for study, thus making our analyses statistically significant," NASA heliophysicist Antti Pulkkinen explained in a statement. "We therefore expect that we will be able to reliably test the hypothesis. So far, there has been very little quantitative research, just a lot of speculation. What we’re going to do is throw cold, hard data at this. It’s a long-standing mystery and it’s important that we figure out what’s going on.”

NASA say they are unlikely to find a causal link, as numerous other factors contribute to strandings. For example, strandings are often associated with fine-grained, gently sloping beaches. The phenomenon is also notably more common in certain parts of the world, such as Massachusetts, New Zealand, Australia. Nonetheless, understanding this solar relationship could potentially save some of the lives of these great creatures.

“We may be able to use observations of solar storms as an early warning for potential strandings to occur,” added Desray Reeb, a marine biologist at BOEM. “This would allow stranding responders in global hotspots, and really around the world, to be better prepared to respond, thus having the opportunity to save more animals.”

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