Whale Strandings Caused by Solar Storms and Sunspots, Study Says [Video]


  • How whales navigate themselves in the ocean depends on their magnetic sense.
  • Researcher says that one of the possible whales are stranded at sea is because of radio noise that disrupts the ability to use magnetic information, leading to navigational errors.
  • Similar analyses for several other whale species and from different continents are needed in order to determine whether this pattern exists on a worldwide scale.

Whale strandings are may have been caused by solar storms and sunspots, a new research study suggests.

This research provides insights into the mechanisms needed in whale migration and the variables contributory to whale strandings that have been recorded for decades. The paper discusses the dependence of whales on magnetic sense to navigate themselves through the ocean and the probability that these animals are stranded due to navigational errors.


This hypothesis stems from the discovery of the inversely proportional relationship between stranding and sunspots: whale stranding is more likely to occur on days when there are more sunspots.

The researcher who is a graduate student in biophysics from Duke University provides information on sunspots: “Sunspots are strongly correlated with solar storms – sudden releases of high-energy particles from the sun that modify the geomagnetic field and thus have the potential to disrupt magnetic orientation behavior.”

Lead author Jesse Granger explains that gray whales were chosen as the test species for the research because of the ideal migration patterns of these species follow: gray whales migrate for 10,000 miles a year from Baja California to Alaska and back. These species also swim relatively close to the shore, where small navigational errors could lead to disaster. A total of 186 live strandings of gray whales over a period of 31 years were included in this study.

The paper concluded that the probability of whale stranding in this particular species was four times more likely with increased radio frequency noise from a solar outburst hitting the Earth.

Granger speculates that whale stranding is primarily attributable to the radio frequency noise created by the solar outburst that overwhelms the senses used for navigation, rather than the warping in the magnetic field of the Earth by the solar storm. She describes it as if the GPS was turned off in the middle of the trip.

“A correlation with solar radio noise is really interesting because we know that radio noise can disrupt an animal’s ability to use magnetic information,” Granger said.

“We’re not trying to say this is the only cause of strandings,” she adds. “It’s just one possible cause.”

Additional research is still necessary to fully understand this mechanism on whale navigation since there are still other factors that could cause a whale to strand, such as naval sonar.

Granger also plans to conduct a similar analysis for several other whale species from different continents in order to determine whether this pattern exists on a worldwide scale.

This research was published in the journal Current Biology on Monday. 

Source: USA Today

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