Are Northern Lights Causing Whale Strandings in the North Sea?

Northern lights over the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Weston/Shutterstock

In early 2016, 29 sperm whales were stranded in the North Sea within the span of a month, washing up on the shores of Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France. Such an unusually high number of whales stranded in such a short amount of time sparked the interest of the public and scientists alike, especially considering they were mainly young and healthy whales. What caused so many to become trapped and disoriented in shallow waters?

A study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology focused on the sperm whale stranding and came up with an interesting link between the whales and another icon of the north: the aurora borealis.

They point out that solar storms affect the planet's magnetic field, creating short-term changes in magnetic latitude. Sperm whales may use these magnetic latitude markers for navigation, and the disruption caused by a powerful solar storm could be enough to throw off sperm whales traveling within the affected area and cause them to lose their way.

The study authors note, "Whales' magnetic sense may play an important role in orientation and migration, and strandings may thus be triggered by geomagnetic storms... 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."

"Where the polar lights are seen, that's the region with the most geomagnetic disruptions on the Earth's surface," Dr. Vanselow told BBC News. "Sperm whales are very huge animals and swim in the free ocean, so if they are disrupted by this affect, they can swim in the wrong direction for days and then correct it. But in the area between Scotland and Norway, if the whales swim in the wrong direction for one or two days, then it is too late for them to go back, they are trapped."

Dr. Klaus Vanselow from the University of Kiel, Germany, and his colleagues made the link between the stranding in early 2016 and two major solar storms that took place at the end of December in 2015.

The connection between solar storms and whale strandings is still a theory, but one that scientists feel is plausible.

"While there's increasing evidence that space weather can also affect biological organisms, it's important to remember that a correlation is not the same as proof," notes Nathan Case of PhysOrg. "Further scientific analyses, such as actually monitoring a large number of whales to see if, and how, their travel paths change during geomagnetic storms, will be needed to prove this link for sure."