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
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


Geographical Week

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

red line

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

Geographical Week

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

University of Winchester


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


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

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    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...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...


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...


The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…


Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away


Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…


Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…


A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…


The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…


The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001, a floating barrier…


New videos reveal how plants respond to wounds, sending forth…


The recent heatwave had everyone longing for a drop of…


The demand for horseshoe crab blood – vital for testing…


One of the problems in getting accurate climate science out…


Italy is divided over the future of its wolves and…


A Scottish tidal power project in the Pentland Firth has…


The world’s first full global analysis of beaches reveals the…


With the recent Saddleworth Moor fire, it can be easy…


Whale sharks have been found to not travel far from…


The Lone Star tick is spreading across North America, carrying…


Earlier this week, Indonesia was struck by a series of…


Efforts to reduce the energy drain of the internet are…


Coal’s rising popularity among climate-apathetic leaders is a worrying trend,…