Why do hundreds of whales, dolphins and porpoises suddenly seem to lose all sense of direction and end up washing up on beaches to suffocate to a slow, painful death? A recent study incriminates the Sun and its storms.
We are not talking here about a few individuals stranded here or there. Mass strandings can involve hundreds of animals. To give you an idea of the scale of these events, here are some numbers: In 2015, 337 dead whales were discovered off the coast of Patagonia in southern Chile — the largest known baleen whale stranding to date. . In 2009, 55 false killer whales were found washed up on a South African beach. Or more recently, last year, around 80 whales washed up on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in India. These whales were so disoriented that of the 36 rescued mammals that made it back to sea, most ended up coming back to wash up on the beach.
Several possible explanations have already been put forward for such phenomena such as anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field or sonar interference with low frequency sonar systems used by the US Navy known to have a negative impact on whales, dolphins and walruses. But while underwater technologies contribute to the disorientation of marine mammals, they alone cannot motivate such phenomena. In any case, this is what astrophysicist Antti Pulkkinen, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, argues. For years, researchers have tried to explain the mystery of the fatal strandings. And today they turned to the Sun.
Previous research has highlighted the gravitational influence of the Moon, no one to date has been able to convincingly link these events to the types of strandings observed. On the other hand, we know that solar storms projected towards the Earth’s magnetosphere can disable satellites, cause widespread blackouts and disrupt our GPS navigation. In the midst of a storm like 2015, researchers are primarily concerned about our communication systems, but NASA suspects such events could also lead to these mysterious mass strandings that can kill hundreds of cetaceans at once.
» So far there has been very little quantitative research — just a lot of speculation », Explains the astrophysicist. » But the accumulated data combined with the many known stranding data at our disposal will allow us to undertake the first rigorous analysis to test possible links between mass cetacean strandings and space weather phenomena. « . Understanding this potential causal link may ultimately offer a better chance of responding to such events.