Science & Technology

Solar storms can hamper whales' navigation, cause them to strand: Study

Radio frequency noise created by solar outburst affects whales’ senses and prevents them from navigating, according to the research

 
By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Tuesday 25 February 2020
California gray whales like these mothers and calves are 4.3 times more likely to strand themselves during a burst of cosmic radio static from a solar flare, further evidence that they navigate by Earth’s magnetic field. (Image: Nicholas Metheny NOAA)

Sudden releases of high-energy particles from the sun, called solar storms, can mess with the navigational ability of California gray whales, causing them to strand on land. The finding was recently published in science journal Current Biology.

Solar storms have the potential to modify geomagnetic field and disrupt magnetic orientation behaviour of animals, hampering their navigation during long periods of migration.

According to Duke University’s Jesse Granger, who authored the research paper, solar storms disrupt earth’s magnetic field — and the whales’ navigational sense.

However, it might not be the solar storm warping the Earth’s magnetic field that causes whales to lose way, according to Granger. The radio frequency noise created by the solar outburst affects the whales’ senses in a way that prevents them from navigating at all.

While correlation between solar activity and migratory behavior has been established before, Granger’s research tries to dig deeper.

According to the study, gray whales were chosen to test the relationship because they migrate 10,000 miles a year, from Baja California to Alaska and back.

Her team compiled datasets from United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and studied cases of over 31 years where gray whales were stranded. Data on whales which were sick, injured or malnourished was omitted. A total of 186 such cases of healthy strandings were found.

On studying the impact of solar activity on stranding, Granger concluded that gray whales were 4.3 times more likely to strand when a lot of radio frequency noise from a solar outburst was hitting the Earth. 

Duke University’s website quoted Granger as saying:

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

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