Solar storms can cause gray whales to “lose their judgment,” according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology. Solar activity interferes with the whales’ internal magnetic navigation systems, leaving them stranded ashore, which often causes them to die. Scientists have observed that many whales experience violent seasonal migrations, which have shifted them from food-rich marine areas to traditional breeding grounds. Depending on the species, whales can travel up to 10,000 miles (16,100 kilometers) on a single migration, which usually brings marine mammals closer to the coastline.
Sadly, every year it seems that healthy whales will be found on coastlines around the world, and these whales inevitably die without intervention.
Scientists explored the relationship between black spots and stranding events. Sunspots are dark regions on the surface of stars that are known to accompany solar storms. During solar storms, high-energy particles spew out of the sun’s atmosphere and rush outwardinto the solar system. These particles interact with the Earth’s geomagnetic field, sometimes to such an extent that they affect the behavior of organisms that rely on it for navigation.
A newly published study builds on early work to explore the link between sunspots and gray whale strandings and the process by which the sun can disrupt navigational “sensors” of marine mammals.
Using 31 years of data, the researchers focused on 186 strandings involving healthy, uninjured whales. The researchers analyzed the data and found that on the day the sun appeared, the risk of stranding was twice as likely as a few days without random occurrence. This suggests that whales rely on some form of magnetic navigation to maintain the correct course during long migrations.
The study details two ways solar activity may have confused the whale’s magnetic instincts. “Is it that the solar storm is pushing the magnetic field around and providing incorrect information to the whale, for example, the whale thinks it’s on Fourth Avenue, but it’s actually on Eighth Avenue?” “Or is it the solar storm that affects the receiver itself – the whale thinks it’s on Fourth Avenue, but just loses its judgment?” commented Jesse Granger of Duke University, co-author of the new study. “
Whales may be stranded due to deviations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by interactions with charged particles from the sun, which induces them to think they are in the wrong place. Second, solar particles may lead to an increase in solar radio flux, which, according to the study, is the “Global Average Radio Frequency Measure (RF).” This radio noise is known to interfere with the magnetic navigation capabilities of several species, which could “lose judgment” from the whale’s biosensors.
The results suggest that the latter is more likely to occur. Whales are four times more likely to be stranded on days of high radiofrequency noise caused by solar activity compared to other randomly selected days.
But the researchers stress that solar activity is not the only reason whales are stranded, but also that there are reasons, including interference from naval sonar.
The paper has been published in the journal Current Biology.