The solar storms that cause the northern lights may have also caused whale strandings early last year.
Two whales that died stranded on a beach near , January 2016 [Photo by Reuters]
A total of 29 young, healthy male sperm whales got stranded in the North Sea in January and February of 2016. The whales died on beaches in the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. They apparently got lost and swam into shallow waters, consequently getting stranded and unable to swim to safety. A new study now says that solar storms may have caused the whales to get lost and swim to their demise.
The strandings puzzled many. According to autopsies, the whales were young and were also quite healthy, well-fed, and free of disease. Other theories pointed to poisoning or changes in climate as possible culprits. However, geomagnetic disruptions caused by solar storms may have actually caused the strandings. These disruptions may have messed with the whales' navigational capabilities, making them swim to shallow waters where they can't get free.
The whales were supposed to swim north along the white line, but instead swam southward along the red line [Image by the Geological Survey of Norway]
At the age of about 10 to 15 years old, young male sperm whales swim north to the polar region, whose colder waters hold a lot of squid. The whales swim north along the west coast of the UK and Ireland, and return to warmer waters through the same route.
Scientists believe that whales use the Earth's geomagnetic field to navigate the oceans. This geomagnetic field in stronger in some areas and weaker in others, and whales “read” these inconsistencies the same way we look at shapes on maps to navigate. Researchers now say that the solar storms that cause the northern lights have disrupted the usual patterns in the geomagnetic field. This, in turn, resulted in the whales losing their way and ending up where they're not supposed to end up.
Since all the stranded whales were male, researchers think that they were on their way to northern waters when they got lost. Instead of swimming to the north of Shetland, they swam toward the shallower North Sea. Researchers looked at the area around Shetland and found that solar storms caused short-term shifts of up to 460 kilometers in the geomagnetic field. As a result, the whales may have moved to the wrong direction.
One of the last whales to die in the mass stranding event, on a beach in[Photo by Getty Images]
“Where the polar lights are seen, that's the region with the most geomagnetic disruptions on the Earth's surface,” says Dr. Klaus Vanselow, one of the researchers. He and his colleagues also say that there's a regular magnetic anomaly that serves as a sort of “guardrail” that cordons the North Sea off. This guardrail stops the whales from entering the North Sea. Solar storms, however, may cause a disruption that renders this guardrail ineffective.
“[II]n the area between Scotland and Norway, if the whales swim in the wrong direction for one or two days, then it is too late for them to go back,” says Dr. Vanselow. “They are trapped."
NASA is also interested in how the solar storms that give rise to northern lights affect cetaceans. According to the agency, Vanselow and his colleagues' study is “well-founded”. This may indeed be the explanation for the strange whale strandings.
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