Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Solar storms stranding North Sea whales

  • Written by  Lottie Watters
  • Published in Oceans
Solar storms stranding North Sea whales Bastiaan Schuit
06 Sep
2017
The deaths of these majestic creatures had remained an unsolved mystery for over a year. Now scientists think they’ve hit on why the number of strandings has recently increased

In early 2016, 29 whales were devastatingly stranded and died on beaches across Europe in under a month. The reason why has remained a tragic mystery for over a year, but a recent report published in the International Journal of Astrobiology suggests solar storms – those also responsible for creating the Northern Lights – may have been the cause.

Between 8 January and 4 February last year, 29 seemingly healthy, male sperm whales were washed up on beaches in the the southern region of the North Sea. The first was found stranded in Germany and subsequently more were beached across The Netherlands, France and the east coast of England.

Initial reports at the time believed the whales got into trouble after hunting shoals of squid which led them into shallow waters or that they had swallowed polluting ocean plastics which ultimately caused their deaths. However, the suggestion that indigestible plastics were the cause was later dismissed as highly unlikely because not all of the whales had plastic in their stomachs, nor were there particularly significant amounts in those that did. Similarly, there were questions surrounding the squid-hunting hypothesis because squid are not normally found in such shallow waters either. However, this new research has provided a plausible and likely explanation for the whales’ deaths.

Whales use the Earth’s geomagnetic field to navigate their way through the oceans. Large solar storms that took place in December 2015 created geomagnetic disturbances which have been known to confuse and disorientate migratory animals such as birds and bees. The study suggests the same happened with these relatively young bull whales, which were inexperienced in recognising the disturbances and knowing how to navigate their way using alternative methods.

Female sperm whales and their calves only live in lower latitude waters (between 40°N and 40°S), but once male bulls reach independence at around ten to 15 years, they migrate further north in so-called ‘bachelor groups’. Older more experienced males travel alone and so the younger, ‘naïve’ males are left to fend for themselves. Whales are believed to possess a magnetic sense whereby they navigate their migration route using the Earth’s geomagnetic alignments. These geomagnetic ‘maps’ are very different from sea depth maps and so they may not recognise that they are entering shallow waters if they only follow their geomagnetic senses. Older bulls are experienced in migratory patterns and are thought to use other navigation methods, such as sonar clicks, if they realise their orientation is wrong.

‘Lulu’ washed up on the shores of Scotland earlier this year, originally thought to have been killed from plastic pollutants in the waters (Image: John Bowler/RSPB Scotland)‘Lulu’ washed up on the shores of Scotland earlier this year, originally thought to have been killed from plastic pollutants in the waters (Image: John Bowler/RSPB Scotland)

One known migration route of sperm whales passes west of the UK and through the Faroe-Shetland Channel into the Norwegian Sea where there is an abundance of squid. It is understood this bachelor group had taken this route because of the squid content found in their stomachs during the autopsies. But rather than pass back through the Faroe-Shetland Channel on their route back to the lower latitudes, it was here the whales are believed to have gotten lost and instead headed southward into the North Sea.

On 20 and 31 December 2015, magnetometer readings from the Sølund station in Norway detected changes in the magnetic field from solar activity. The activity temporarily altered the geomagnetic map by up to 460km in the region around Shetland and essentially disguised a geomagnetic boundary that prevents the whales travelling into the North Sea. ‘The whales thought that they were on the right side (north) of the “thought barrier”, when they were actually on the wrong (south) side due to the solar storm,’ explains the research paper.

The Northern lights, an effect of solar storms (Image: Petri Jauhiainen)The Northern lights, an effect of solar storms (Image: Petri Jauhiainen)

Whales can often swim in the wrong direction for a day or two when they become lost or disorientated, but usually correct their course without any major problems. Unfortunately, once they enter shallow waters it is very unlikely to result in a positive outcome, particularly in the North Sea where the bed is typically mud or sand. The whales cannot use the echoes from their sonar clicks to navigate in this terrain and so they suffer from respiratory failure in the shallows with their lungs eventually collapsing.

These solar storms are also responsible for the natural phenomena the Aurora Borealis (otherwise known as the Northern Lights) and the ones that occurred in December 2015 were so large in the region they could be seen from the Caithness coast in northern Scotland, adding further support to the study. NASA is also conducting research into the possibility of solar storms causing animal beachings.

red line

NEVER MISS A STORY

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

NGOs shine a light on the underreporting of wildlife crime…

Wildlife

Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the…

Geophoto

Annual competition looks to celebrate island life in all its…

Oceans

Increasing interest in offshore aquaculture is dividing environmentalists

Energy

Well-meaning promises don’t always have positive outcomes. Marco Magrini finds…

Wildlife

The RSPB introduces a new hotline for reporting the unlawful…

Wildlife

With the death earlier this week of the world’s last…

Geophoto

The essence of street photography is its raw, unfiltered, unstaged…

Energy

For Marco Magrini, a tax on fossil fuels would be…

Wildlife

Half of animal species in world’s most biodiverse areas could…

Wildlife

Four-year project to reestablish safe breeding grounds for seabirds on…

Wildlife

First global atlas of soil bacteria reveals a small minority…

Polar

Scientists discover how shrubs are dominating the Arctic tundra

Wildlife

War and conservation have a complicated relationship, with two studies…

Climate

Why is Europe so cold right now? Marco Magrini suggests…

Wildlife

Threatened Californian owls are suffering from digesting rat poison administered…

Oceans

With the majority of the ocean still remaining undiscovered, a…

Oceans

Belize bans offshore oil extraction to protect the second longest…

Geophoto

With their horns still much-prized by poachers, will the revered…

Wildlife

Narwhals show a complex response to interaction with humans and…