In early 2016, 29 male sperm whales beached themselves along the shores of shores of France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands; with the tragic incidents occurring over a period of time totaling less than a month from January 8 to February 4. Autopsies performed on the whales found that they were all healthy, and well-nourished – offering no apparent physiological reason for the cetaceans to run themselves aground. But researchers looking into the case began to question whether or not the creatures’ navigation systems were compromised in some manner, disorienting them in a fashion that would ultimately prove to be fatal. The question led them to discover that the Earth’s magnetic field had been temporarily changed by a series of solar storms that had occurred over the weeks leading up to the mass beaching: – the possible culprit behind the whales’ deaths.

While it is not fully understood how migratory species, such as whales, navigate over long distances; it is assumed that they make use of the Earth’s magnetic field to align, and direct themselves along their journeys. Powerful solar storms such as the ones that occurred earlier this September can alter both the intensity, and direction of the magnetic field.  For species that use this method of navigation, electromagnetic disruption(s) quite possibly could alter their routes in devastating ways.

A research team from Kiel University in Germany found the "coincidental" timing of two solar storms that reached the Earth, one occurring over December 20-21, 2015, and the second over December 30, 2015 to January 01, 2016. Studying magnetometer data over a region stretching from the Norwegian Sea in the north to the Azores off of the Portuguese coast, they found that over the course of the Dec. 20-21 solar storm, the intensity of the magnetic field off the coast of Norway went from 51,150 nanoteslas (nT) to a peak of 51,450 nT, and then went back down to 50,520 nT, a change of more than 900 nT over an 18-hour span. This change in intensity would be the equivalent of the whales having traveled the 460 kilometers (286 miles) between Shetland and Norway.

The Dec. 30-Jan. 01 storm saw a change of 540 nT, equivalent to a 277 km (172 mile) southward journey. Additionally, these storms also caused the direction of the magnetic lines in the region to change: between these two factors, the whales’ navigational abilities may have been thrown off by as much as 300 km (186 miles).

Sperm whales typically don’t venture into the North Sea, where the beachings took place, but if the whales’ navigation senses were thrown off, this may explain why they wandered into the region, assuming they were somewhere else altogether. Magnetic disruptions such as this are less intense at lower latitudes, where the females stay over the course of their lives, and subsequently where these whales are born, meaning that fluctuations in the magnetic field would have less of an impact there. But males venture to the north to hunt for squid, and the intensity of the magnetic field is stronger towards the poles where magnetic fluctuations may magnify disorientation the whales might experience. 

Scientists from NASA are collecting data surrounding solar storms, and exploring the hypothesis of a connection between "cetacean mass strandings and space-weather phenomena" according to marine biologist Desray Reeb of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  Any links formed between the resulting data may allow scientists to predict when potential strandings will occur, and thereby have the opportunity to save more animals.

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