Do Solar Flares Change Magnetic Navigation? Lost Whales

A rather interesting article that looks at the potential connection between whale beachings / deaths, and solar changes.

The Mysterious Connection Between Solar Storms and Stranded Whales

Could cosmic events be leading sperm whales to their deaths?

by Sarah Laskow September 08, 2017

The whales were all males, on the younger side, and likely belonged to the same pod of bachelor sperm whales, up from southern waters to feast on squid in the Norwegian Sea. Sperm whales are normally good navigators that travel from polar to equatorial seas, but somehow this group had taken a deadly detour into the shallow, relatively squid-free North Sea.
But there have also been dramatic mass beachings in 1577, 1723, 1762 (when more than two dozen dead whales were found), and 1994.

For all those centuries, the cause of these mass deaths has been a mystery. Whales that die in this way tend to be in good health, with no signs of illness or malnutrition, and their deaths have come in no clear pattern that might hint at what happened. The long history of the strandings mean that it’s hard to blame humans, exclusively at least, for causing them.
Perhaps, though, we should blame the Sun.

In a new paper, published this August in the International Journal of Astrobiology, physicist Klaus Heinrich Vanselow and his colleagues develop a theory, first advanced more than a decade ago, that whale strandings in the North Sea are caused by solar storms. Million miles away, the Sun spits out clouds of energy and particles so large they can distort Earth’s magnetic field. When they hit the planet, these magnetic fluctuations may make whales lose their way with serious, even fatal, consequences.

Solar storms may trigger sperm whale strandings: explanation approaches for multiple strandings in the North Sea in 2016


The Earth’s atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field protects local life by shielding us against Solar particle flows, just like the sun’s magnetic field deflects cosmic particle radiation. Generally, magnetic fields can affect terrestrial life such as migrating animals. Thus, terrestrial life is connected to astronomical interrelations between different magnetic fields, particle flows and radiation. Mass strandings of whales have often been documented, but their causes and underlying mechanisms remain unclear. We investigated the possible reasons for this phenomenon based on a series of strandings of 29 male, mostly bachelor, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in the southern North Sea in early 2016. Whales’ magnetic sense may play an important role in orientation and migration, and strandings may thus be triggered by geomagnetic storms. This approach is supported by the following: (1) disruptions of the Earth’s magnetic field by Solar storms can last about 1 day and lead to short-term magnetic latitude changes corresponding to shifts of up to 460 km; (2) many of these disruptions are of a similar magnitude to more permanent geomagnetic anomalies; (3) geomagnetic anomalies in the area north of the North Sea are 50–150 km in diameter; and (4) sperm whales swim about 100 km day−1, and may thus be unable to distinguish between these phenomena. 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. ‘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.

A very interesting theory. The whales are sure they have headed out into deep water when in fact they turned too soon and ended up in relatively shallow water. Trusting their magnetic navigation, unsure of where they are, with little in the way of visual clues and likely no experience in that particular sea; they press on until they are beached and stuck.

Ought to be fairly easy to analyze statistically.

Back at the first link:

The whales that get lost in the North Sea are on their way back south. Usually, they would skirt around Scotland and Ireland to get back to the Atlantic, but sometimes they turn south too sharply and too early—into the North Sea, which has sandbanks, estuaries, and tides more dramatic than they’re used to.

“The North Sea … is totally unsuitable for sperm whales,” wrote Chris Smeenk, of the Netherlands’ National Museum of Natural History, in a 1997 paper on the history of whale strandings. “Being animals of the deep ocean, sperm whales have no experience whatsoever in finding their way in this kind of shallow and treacherous waters.” Whales that find themselves in the North Sea have been seen to panic, thrash about, head in the exact wrong direction, and get so confused that they end up beaching even when escape is possible. Imagine a group of people who are hiking and lose their way, only to get separated, and then die alone in the wildness.

For many years scientists have been trying to figure out why these beachings happen. They have considered the role of pollution or human-generated noise, though neither explains the historical cases. One study in 2007 found a correlation between warmer periods and the frequency of North Sea strandings. There was a long gap in mass strandings between the 18th century and the 20th century, and it may be that they happen with more frequency now because the whale population is recovering from decades of intensive hunting.

An intriguing theory that has been around in some form since at least the 1980s, implicates the activity of the Sun. Whales keep their bearings through echolocation, but like many other animals that travel far and wide, they also use magnetic fields to navigate. Geomagnetic lines can act as trails of sorts, which guide animals over long distances. But those paths are not entirely reliable, since natural variation in the make-up of the Earth can cause anomalies and weak spots in the otherwise regular magnetic lines. And, on occasion, when a strong solar storm hits the planet, the magnetic field can go a little haywire.

They then make a connection to pigeons, who also magnetically navigate.

Pigeon racing is an old sport, but its modern incarnation took off in the 19th century. Trained homing pigeons all start from the same point and race each other home. For much of the way, they navigate by magnetic field, and in the 1970s a team of researchers showed that during solar storms, the birds were less likely to make it home and took longer to make the journey. “Pigeons for races are very expensive, so a loss of them is a bitter loss,” says Vanselow. Pigeon racers rely on forecasts of solar storms to decide whether to fly their pigeons, especially in more northern latitudes, where the effects of solar storms can be stronger.

So the pigeon racers know about this. The whales may be subject to it (or likely are subject to it). One wonders what other animals are affected, and if any of our human navigation systems are also influenced?

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Biology Biochem, Science Bits and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do Solar Flares Change Magnetic Navigation? Lost Whales

  1. philjourdan says:

    I thought we could not blame the sun? Mikey Mann is going to trash those poor researchers! :-)

    But it does make you wonder what happens to the Whales when the poles flip. My understanding is we are due for one.

  2. E.M.Smith says:


    Molecular biology and immunology show that cetaceans are phylogenetically closely related with the even-toed ungulates (Artiodactyla). Whales direct lineage began in the early Eocene, more than 50 million years ago, with early artiodactyls.

    A geomagnetic reversal is a change in a planet’s magnetic field such that the positions of magnetic north and magnetic south are interchanged, while geographic north and geographic south remain the same. The Earth’s field has alternated between periods of normal polarity, in which the predominant direction of the field was the same as the present direction, and reverse polarity, in which it was the opposite. These periods are called chrons.

    The time spans of chrons are randomly distributed with most being between 0.1 and 1 million years with an average of 450,000 years. Most reversals are estimated to take between 1,000 and 10,000 years. The latest one, the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago, and may have happened very quickly, within a human lifetime.

    A brief complete reversal, known as the Laschamp event, occurred only 41,000 years ago during the last glacial period. That reversal lasted only about 440 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years. During this change the strength of the magnetic field weakened to 5% of its present strength.] Brief disruptions that do not result in reversal are called geomagnetic excursions.

    So in their 50 million years they have gone through many, and survived. The article mentions not having time adapt to the solar flare change as it happens nearly instantly. I’d assume they can adapt to the change over time.

    For me, going 1/2 a world a way I get a disoriented feeling. Normally I can close my eyes and turn my head back and forth and “feel” north. That gets messed up. After about 2 to 3 days I’ve calibrated and it works right again. But initially the feeling is bizarre as “the sun comes up wrong”… and things are just out of place.

    So my guess is that during a reversal, that can take “within a human lifetime”, there’s enough time day to day to adjust to the needed tuning.

  3. ossqss says:

    The data is a bit vague in the extracts. Spots and flares and CME events all are varied along with associated variations in various flux measurments. Here are a couple good and deep sites if interested in the subject. We have had significant X level and other solar storm events over the last few decades that don’t coincide with beachings etc. as an example. I am not saying there is no effect, just that larger events should be the most easily observed if it were significant.

    Happy Friday All!

  4. philjourdan says:

    @E.M. – Yea, the time it takes is probably what they can get use to. I am like you as far as acclimation. It takes a few days to get the feel of the coast being on the wrong side when the sun comes up (not like East/West Coast). But as whales have been around for so long, I guess they have learned to live with it – with the exception of the more liberal ones who insist that it was always that way and they should not change. ;-)

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