Solar storms linked to mass strandings of whales

Mass strandings of whales have often been documented, but their causes remain unclear.

Aurora Borealis – Humpback whales under the Northern Lights (Harald Albrigtsen Kvaløya Whale Island Tromsø)

Researchers from Europe have just published a study in the International Journal of Astrobiology suggesting that some strandings are triggered by strong geomagnetic storms such as the one headed for Earth now. On Sept. 4th, active sunspot AR2673 hurled a CME toward Earth.

Estimated time of arrival: Today. According to NOAA forecasters, the CME’s impact will spark moderately-strong G2-class geomagnetic storms with isolated periods of strong G3-class storming on Sept. 6th and 7th.

Whales’ magnetic sense can play an important role in migration, and this sense may become confused when CMEs rattle our planet’s magnetic field.

Read the original research (open access) from Cambridge University Press.

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

Abstract: 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.

h/t NASA


62 thoughts on “Solar storms linked to mass strandings of whales

  1. Has anyone ever actually demonstrated a magnetic detection capability in whales? Or in any animals?
    Birds, I assume, use changes in the weather, position of the sun, etc to know when to migrate and which way to go. Don’t whales use the same phenomena? That I could believe, but “magnetic detection” ?? I want to see some evidence of that.

      • That cite contains the following statements:

        …For animals the mechanism for magnetoreception is unknown, but there exist two main hypotheses to explain the phenomenon…..The largest issue affecting verification of an animal magnetic sense is that despite more than 40 years of work on magnetoreception there has yet to be an identification of a sensory receptor….

        So, still tentative, then…

      • From Britannica: “In sharks and rays, some neuromasts have been evolutionarily modified to become electroreceptors called ampullae of Lorenzini. These receptors are concentrated on the heads of sharks and can detect the minute electrical potentials generated by the muscle contractions of prey. Ampullae of Lorenzini can also detect Earth’s electromagnetic field, and sharks apparently use these electroreceptors for homing and migration.”
        Try and take the electro out of my electromagnetic. I dare ya.

      • Dodgy,

        The passage you cite is from 1984. We know a lot more about magnetoreception now than then.

        And even if we still don’t know precisely how it works in all organisms with the sense, we do know that they have the ability and use it.

        Artiodactyls such as cows and deer are well known to align themselves along magnetic force fields, so it should come as no surprise that their fellow artiodactyls, the cetaceans, do so as well.

        Whales and dolphins in fact have been found to use Earth’s electromagnetism in their long migrations (the echolocation of the dolphins serves only for short distances). Impairments in the Earth’s magnetic field could explain massive cetacean strands in specific areas.

    • “Has anyone ever actually demonstrated a magnetic detection capability in whales? Or in any animals?”
      Yes. It has been shown in fish (salmon, trout, tuna, etc.), in birds (many times), some crustaceans such as lobsters, turtles, and in toads, newts and salamanders, and in many insects (most advanced are probably bees – which potentially have three different sensory mechanisms), but I think the only terrestrial mammal is the blind mole rat (I may be wrong).

      It can be shown in these animals by using artificial magnetic fields, and if orientation changes predictably (with all else being equal) then it’s pretty certain they have the magnetic detection capability – but how, which organs, etc. is still speculation. Some animals appear to have a compass and others are able to detect changes in the magnetic intensity. But whales, no, not specifically in sperm whales, as far as I am aware, it hasn’t been demonstrated – probably because of the logistical problems – they are not often kept in labs, but it has been shown in dolphins, which were able to distinguish between objects which are magnetised etc. It has been speculated for baleen whales (not sperm whales) by statistical association with places they prefer to migrate – but this type of evidence is tenuous (IMHO).

      But the fact that animals do detect magnetism is well established (if not settled!)

      By the way, this story seems a little odd considering the earlier reference related to this idea: Vanselow, K.H. and Ricklefs, K., 2005. Are solar activity and sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus strandings around the North Sea related?. Journal of sea research, 53(4), pp.319-327.

      Same lead author in the 2016 paper in Journal of Astrobiology. Seems to be peddling the same story, or perhaps gathered more evidence.

      • Jay Willis September 6, 2017 at 1:45 pm

        “Has anyone ever actually demonstrated a magnetic detection capability in whales? Or in any animals?”

        Yes. It has been shown in fish (salmon, trout, tuna, etc.), in birds (many times), some crustaceans such as lobsters, turtles, and in toads, newts and salamanders, and in many insects (most advanced are probably bees – which potentially have three different sensory mechanisms), but I think the only terrestrial mammal is the blind mole rat (I may be wrong).

        Thanks, Jay. My bad. I meant any MAMMALS, moving too fast.


      • Willis,

        The literature is rich in examples of mammalian geomagnetic response, to include cetaceans, as you easily could have discovered in mere seconds.


    Ionosphere currents are produced by geomagnetic storms originating from the Star-Sun-Earth environment. Ionosphere current variation has a direct influence on atmospheric temperature [10, 11]. On 25th December 2004 and 23rd February 2005 hailstorms and snowstorms were reported in the Northern Hemisphere, while in the Tropics a sudden drop in temperature led to foggy and smoggy conditions. This temperature variation was different in different parts of the Earth, as the effects of solar flares are dependent on the geomagnetic co-ordinate of Earth and its respective position with regards to the stars. Further, the fluctuation of atmospheric temperatures in the month of December 2005, in the first week of January 2006 and in the last week of December 2007, suggests the direct correlation of the Star-Sun-Earth environment (Figure 1). If the electron flux from the sun is low, with the subsequent rise in cosmic rays simultaneously anomalous snowfall and lowering of the atmospheric temperature has been observed. It would be possible to understand the movement of clouds and snowfall, as well as atmospheric moisture, if we could efficiently calculate the influence of space weather and cosmic influence on the thermosphere and atmosphere of the Earth [12].

    • [info trimmed. .mod]
      Another huge solar eruption this morning.

      (Sep 6 1229UTC) An X9.3 solar flare has erupted – significant CME analysis will need to take place today. This flare was the largest in 12 years and is the 15th largest solar flare on record.
      (Sep 6 1143UTC) An X class solar flare erupted this morning – CME analysis is a few hours away. Meanwhile, solar wind must be monitored today for the impact of the CME that erupted two days ago. Strong geomagnetic storms are expected.

      Now is a perfect time to collect great data to see if and how large storms may be influenced by solar activity.

      • Sorry about copy/ pasting the header of my comment from somewhere else. Now my annonymity and cover is blown ;-)

    • This graph shows geomagnetic changes during the last 24 hours as recorded at Thule airbase in Greenland. Declination changes were the moderate 3 degrees between two extreme values. Similar deviation would be on the other side. A 1.5 to 2 degree orientation error near Svalbard or Jan Mayen could send whales to the east instead of the west of the Shetland islands, i.e. ending in the North Sea instead the down the Atlantic Ocean.

    • Caused by man – digging up all that iron ore, turning it into metallic iron, then cars and boats and planes going every which way confusing the poor earth.

      • … obviously a positive feedback that will doom us.

        (and also note that the magnetic field has weakened significantly since the ban on whale hunting and the resulting population explosion … further confirmation of your theory)

  3. Having dealt with stranding in my professional career I have sort of followed the events over time. Pilot whales seem to strand the most but are not the only species that strands. The strandings I covered were all different in obvious ways, different species, different locations, different times of year. I have seen a myriad of hypotheses trying to explain strandings, everything from Navy underwater explosions, once annual events, to parasites to organophosphate pesticides. If solar storms were THE reason then wouldn’t strandings take place across several species over relatively large areas?

  4. It wouldn’t make much difference. Magnetic poles drift all the time but slowly.
    It is thought that the animal’s magnetoreception based presence magnetite (Fe3O4). Navigation maps built into brains have to be dynamic rather than once off i.e. static. I would think that maps are updated during every single journey, else land and ocean animals using magnetic navigation would not survive the 30 degree west drift of the ‘N’ magnetic pole during the last 100 or so years

    • when you go into town and find a new one way street cuts off your way to work , it does not take three generations to work out a new way to work.

      I guess whales are not that far behind when adapting their mental maps.

    • vuk,
      And some whales – bowheads – appear to be able to live longer than humans
      Human record is the Frenchwoman, Calment, 1875 to 1997 – over 122 years.

      See – for example –

      No other human has been verified to have had a 120th birthday.

      Bowheads – the Wiki – usual comments about editability apply –

      But Bowheads seem not to travel far, as far as we know (highlights that this sub-sea science is not settled).


  5. It is now pretty well understood that the main cause of whale strandings is undersea earthquakes. The shockwaves produced by these occurrences can be extremely strong. Strong enough to damage the whales’ echo location chambers.

    The US Navy and sibsequently Woods Hole and Scripps have been researching this phenomena for decades. The Navy began to research this after several nuclear submarines were severely damaged as a result of being in the general area of an undersea quake. As they searched through decades of maritime records, they came across hundreds of reports of ships that had come into port with damage, sometimes severe hull damage from unknown causes. There were also records of ships that had simply disappeared, having never shown up at their destinations. In many, many cases, the Navy research was able to correlate the damaged and disappeared ships with undersea earthquakes that had occurred along the route the ships had taken.

    Woods Hole Oceanograpgic Institute took an interest in the Navy’s research because it seemed logical that undersea shock waves steong enough to damage ships might also be quite strong enough to damage the echo location chambers of whales, causing them to drift with the current, and eventually be washed up on shore. Woods Hole was able to correlate many whale strandings with undersea earthquakes that had taken place not long before the strandings and in locations where prevailing currents would have brought the stricken whales to the shores where they ended up.

    The main tbing that kills these whales is starving to death. With their echo location knocked out, they cannot locate schools of fish. The whales that wash up on beaches are already weakened from not having fed for many days or perhaps weeks. The well meaning people who succeed in pulling the whales back out to sea are only consigning them to a certain death. Given time, their damaged echo location tissues can usually heal. The problem is starving to death in the meantime.

  6. I’m not buying this claim at all, for a number of reasons:

    1. While there are some indications, as far as I know no one has demonstrated that whales migrate by magnetism.

    2. Nor is there any physiological evidence of where the geomagnetic field might be sensed in the body of a whale or other animal.

    3. IF such a sense exists, it is not possible that it is extremely accurate, or we’d have seen its effects.

    4. In the ocean, as early mariners often tragically confirmed, a compass bearing no matter how accurate is NOT adequate for navigation. No prudent mariner depends solely on their compass.

    5. Whales are not as dumb about the ocean as humans. I’m reminded of a couple I met once. They truly thought that they could leave Portland, Oregon, in a 40′ sailboat and just set their autopilot to follow a compass course, and it would steer them right along the line on the map definde by that compass course … they were fortunate to escape with their lives after they stranded their boat just like the whales do occasionally …

    6. The question is NOT whether or why the whales get off course. The question is why they kill themselves en masse by beaching themselves. I simply do not believe that like the couple out of Portland they have closed their eyes and are blindly following an uncertain compass course to their doom.

    7. Compass navigation becomes more unreliable the further north that you go.

    8. Even birds that are known to be able to sense magnetic fields do NOT navigate by those fields alone.

    The Earth’s magnetic field and celestial cues provide animals with compass information during migration. Inherited magnetic compass courses are selected based on the angle of inclination, making it difficult to orient in the near vertical fields found at high geomagnetic latitudes. Orientation cage experiments were performed at different sites in high Arctic Canada with adult and young white–crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) in order to investigate birds’ ability to use the Earth’s magnetic field and celestial cues for orientation in naturally very steep magnetic fields at and close to the magnetic North Pole. Experiments were performed during the natural period of migration at night in the local geomagnetic field under natural clear skies and under simulated total overcast conditions. The experimental birds failed to select a meaningful magnetic compass course under overcast conditions at the magnetic North Pole, but could do so in geomagnetic fields deviating less than 3° from the vertical. Migratory orientation was successful at all sites when celestial cues were available.

    And that’s just the reasons that immediately come to mind. One huge problem? Lack of data. There are simply not enough strandings to get good statistics. Which is why the debate over why whales strand has gone on for years without resolution.

    My best to everyone,


    • Willis,
      Here in New Zealand…..
      Most whale stranding is the result of one ( 1 ) whale calling for help ( usually a young- one )

    • “2. Nor is there any physiological evidence of where the geomagnetic field might be sensed in the body of a whale or other animal.”
      Willis, I always enjoy your penetrating skepticism and polymath knowledge. You may enjoy this with regard to ‘other animals’:
      “While underwater sight and sound — however muted and distorted they may be — are within our realm of experience, sharks possess a sense that is so alien to us that we can neither relate to it nor fathom what it might feel like. That sense is electroreception: an acute sensitivity to electrical fields. Sharks receive tiny electrical signals from their environment via a series of pores peppered over the head, looking like a bad case of 5-O’clock shadow. These pores are distributed in discrete patterns, varying somewhat among elasmobranch species. …These cells are termed ampullae of Lorenzini… Modified hair cells line the deepest part of the central lumen (cavity) of each ampulla. Instead of being responsive to bending, the klinocilium/lesser cilia mechanism of ampullary hair cells respond to a local reversal of electrical polarity. A net negative charge inside the ampullary lumen causes an electrical change in each hair cell, triggering the release of neurotransmitters to adjacent clusters of sensory nerves which, in turn, signal the brain, where the stimulus is interpreted. That the same functional unit — the hair cell — has been adapted to sensing sound, vibration, and electrical stimuli testifies eloquently on behalf of the conservatism and creativity of evolutionary processes.
      Seawater is an ion-rich medium that conducts electrical fields moderately well. Seawater moving over the magnetic field lines of our planet provide a weak but richly textured electrical ‘map’ of the immediate environment. A shark’s body is contains a rich broth of electrically charged biomolecules called electrolytes, which allow cells to communicate with each other. As it swims across geomagnetic field lines, electrical currents are induced in its body that provide navigational cues. Field studies by A. Peter Klimley have revealed that Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) in the Sea of Cortez use this built-in compass sense to follow ‘magnetic highways’ along the seafloor between separate nocturnal feeding and diurnal socializing sites. On a much smaller scale, cellular activity generates tiny electric fields that can betray the presence of potential prey that would otherwise be hidden from sharks. A particularly vivid example is provided by the Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), which detects buried stingrays by sweeping its wide, ampullae-studded head over the bottom like the sensor plate of a metal detector.”

      I agree that with regard to whales this seem rather speculative.

  7. whales get beached because they some up to look at the beautiful lights and, not looking where they are going, run into a beach and get stuck.

    • That’s why we always find them lying on their sides on the beach. The position of their eyes means they have to roll over to look at the sky. ;)

  8. It’s obviously global warming that’s interfering with the magnetic field. How? Well…just because. Ask Al Gore, he’s an expert on everything.

  9. SURELY… It’s Climate Change that causes whale strandings? It causes everything else… Or are we just seeing the first cautious movements by scientists who dare to claim that other things are important as well?

  10. Headline: “Whales MIGHT Be Lead Astray by Solar Magnetic Storms!”

    btw: The Earth will be hit with a giant solar coronal mass ejection today… That is all.

    Talk about burying the lead!

  11. “Pigeons Can Sense The Earth’s Magnetic Field”
    From Nature magazine
    “It’s official: homing pigeons really can sense Earth’s magnetic field. An investigation of their ability to detect different magnetic fields shows that their impressive navigation skills almost certainly relies on tiny magnetic particles in their beaks.”

    from ‘Science’
    “Researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, led by Dr. J. David Dickman, have taken steps to answer this question in the affirmative. They concentrated their research on pigeons, which have long been suspected of having magnetic perception to aid their navigation. By examining neural activity in the brain stems of pigeons, Dr. Dickman and Dr. Le-Qing Wu were able to correlate the birds’ neural activity to a changing magnetic environment, thus demonstrating that the birds were processing a magnetic signal.”

    from University Of North Carolina, Summary:
    Homing pigeons have intrigued humans for many centuries through their seemingly uncanny ability to find their way home from thousands of miles away. But how they do that has remained a mystery. Now, through a series of careful behavioral experiments in the laboratory, scientists say they have shown unequivocally for the first time that pigeons have a magnetic sense that goes beyond just a simple magnetic compass.

    The following is a copy from articles published by Cornell University.
    “Keeton concluded that there seem to be two compass systems utilized during navigation with the primary system relying on the position of the sun and the secondary one on the earth’s magnetic field. From these magnet experiments came an interesting finding regarding the development of the compass sense in pigeons. Keeton found that young, inexperienced pigeons were often disoriented even in sunny conditions as a result of the magnets.”

    If you suffer from insomnia, orientate your bed to N-S direction, head N, thus the longest blood vessels circulation (iron, haemoglobin, red blood cells) is not crossing magnetic field direction, thus not inducing electric currents that might be disturbing the nerve system’s electric functions / sarc

  12. Have you noticed that headlines that are written backassards, such as the headline to this article, are able to generate strange visual images? Stranded whales — mass or individually — causing solar storms is an interesting concept.

    • Ah … mebbe we’re onto something …. 29 males crazily trying to mate with one female? That’d be pretty distracting – there’s some wildlife TV footage I saw a few years back of a chaotic session in the S. Atlantic where a crowd of male whales seem utterly oblivious to anything but the target of their affections.

      I am reminded of course that wet streets cause rain.

  13. With all the interesting discussion points and the possibility that whales are disorientated by the earths magnetic field or undersea earthquakes, the one point that has not been raised is why whales want to effectively commit suicide by beaching themselves in shallow water. They surely know when they are in shallow water, and as with all marine animals would normally move into deep water for survival. It is one thing to become disorientated, it is another for a whole group of whales to decide beach themselves, and even to return to the beach after being dragged from shallow to deep water in an effort to save them. There is no other animal or bird on earth which does this even though many rely on the magnetic field for their survival. I believe we are way off the mark in considering the various reasons for this strange activity, and that it may well be caused by some in-built desire in the animals to take a group decision to end their lives in this way.

  14. The North Sea is a transitory phenomenon. It only exists during interglacials. For most the of the Quaternary the region is dry land. It’s reappearance keeps taking whales by surprise.

  15. Richard G. on September 6, 2017 at 11:41 am
    From Britannica: “In sharks and rays, some neuromasts have been evolutionarily modified to become electroreceptors called ampullae of Lorenzini.

    Yes, Richard.

    But no one ever reported STRANDED SHARKS.

    quo vadis ?

    • quo vadis?
      I was responding to the question “Has anyone ever actually demonstrated a magnetic detection capability in whales? Or in any animals?” with an emphatic yes, sharks have been proven to have evolved sensory organs that use electromagnetic field detection to navigate and detect other animals’ bio-EM fields… as for whales, more grant money is needed.

  16. 18 Norwegian Journal of development of the International Science No 6/2017
    Коваленко А.А.
    Студентка. Кубанский Государственный Университет. Филиал. Город Новороссийск
    Kovalenko A.
    Student. Kuban State University. Branch. City Novorossiysk

  17. 18 Norwegian Journal of development of the International
    Kovalenko A.
    Student. Kuban State University. Branch. City Novorossiysk
    Mass mortality of marine mammals when they commit stranding in groups and perish in most cases coincides with high solar activity. The cause of the tragedy of whales and dolphins is the influence of a solar plasma flux on formation of a tropospheric ozone layer on the Earth’s surface. High concentration of ozone in the air causes poisoning symptoms of animals. This article reviews the interrelation between solar activity, polluted air masses and weather conditions which cause death of marine mammals and sea birds. This article describes the method of prediction of possible mortality of marine mammals through access to information on the open website Tethys Space Observatory and analysis of the UV index forecast. The possibility of use of the hydro-acoustic device “Bugel” for rescue of whales and dolphins.

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