Solar Storms Cause Sperm Whales to Beach in North Sea, Study Suggests
The Northern Lights may disrupt the navigation mechanisms employed by sperm whales, according to new research. Mass strandings in the North Sea were connected to large solar storms which took place in late 2015.
“Sperm whales spend their early, non-breeding years in lower latitudes, where magnetic disruptions by the sun are weak and thus lack experience of this phenomenon,” according to the new research, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
Scientists studied the stranding of 29 sperm whales in the North Sea in January 2016 on beaches in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and France. The strandings puzzled scientists as all the whales were in otherwise good health.
The latest study connected the strandings to two large solar storms which occurred in late December 2015, creating a 460km (285 miles) disruption in the magnetic field between the Shetland Islands and Norway.
“‘Naïve’ whales may therefore become disoriented in the southern Norwegian Sea as a result of failing to adopt alternative navigation systems in time and becoming stranded in the shallow North Sea,” according to the research.
A magnetic anomaly off the coast of Norway, which the scientists believe acts as a barrier preventing whales from entering the North Sea, was disrupted by the storms, allowing them access to the area.
NASA heliophysicist Antti Pulkkinen has also been investigating the link between solar storms and navigation in whales. Pulkkinen said if a link is proven it would allow for an early warning system to be developed for potential strandings.
“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,” he said in a statement.