Solar storms could scramble whales' navigational sense

February 24, 2020

DURHAM, N.C. -- When our sun belches out a hot stream of charged particles in Earth's general direction, it doesn't just mess up communications satellites. It might also be scrambling the navigational sense of California gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), causing them to strand on land, according to a Duke University graduate student.

Many animals can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use it like a GPS to navigate during their long migrations. However, solar storms could be disrupting that signal, said Duke graduate student Jesse Granger, who studies biophysics in the lab of biology professor Sönke Johnsen.

Earlier research has found a correlation between solar activity like sunspots and flares and stranded sperm whales, but Granger's analysis tried to get to the bottom of what the relationship might be.

Gray whales were an ideal species to test this idea because they migrate 10,000 miles a year from Baja California to Alaska and back and they stay relatively close to the shore, where small navigational errors could lead to disaster, Granger said.

She compiled a NOAA database of gray whale stranding incidents over a period of 31 years and sifted out all the cases in which the whales were obviously sick, malnourished, injured or entangled, leaving only 186 strandings of otherwise healthy animals.

Comparing the healthy strandings data to a record of solar activity and statistically sifting out several other possible factors like seasons, weather, ocean temperatures and food abundance, 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.

She suspects the issue isn't that a solar storm warps the Earth's magnetic field, though it can. It's that the radio frequency noise created by the solar outburst does something to overwhelm the whales' senses, preventing them from navigating altogether -- as if turning their GPS off in the middle of the trip.

The likelihood that whales might be somehow tapping into the planet's geomagnetic fields is pretty strong because landmarks are few in the open ocean, but unfortunately, researchers don't yet know precisely how they navigate, said Granger, whose work appears Feb. 24 in Current Biology.

While her study provides more evidence for a magnetic sense, Granger said the whales may still be using other cues to make their migration. "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," she said.

"We're not trying to say this is the only cause of strandings," Granger said. "It's just one possible cause."
CITATION: "Gray Whales Strand More Often on Days With Increased Levels of Atmospheric Radio-Frequency Noise," Jesse Granger, Lucianne Walkowicz, Robert Fitak, Sönke Johnsen. Current Biology, Feb. 24, 2020. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.028

Duke University

Related Magnetic Field Articles from Brightsurf:

Investigating optical activity under an external magnetic field
A new study published in EPJ B by Chengping Yin, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Quantum Engineering and Quantum Materials, South China, aims to derive an analytical model of optical activity in black phosphorous under an external magnetic field.

Magnetic field and hydrogels could be used to grow new cartilage
Instead of using synthetic materials, Penn Medicine study shows magnets could be used to arrange cells to grow new tissues

Magnetic field with the edge!
This study overturns a dominant six-decade old notion that the giant magnetic field in a high intensity laser produced plasma evolves from the nanometre scale.

Global magnetic field of the solar corona measured for the first time
An international team led by Professor Tian Hui from Peking University has recently measured the global magnetic field of the solar corona for the first time.

Magnetic field of a spiral galaxy
A new image from the VLA dramatically reveals the extended magnetic field of a spiral galaxy seen edge-on from Earth.

How does Earth sustain its magnetic field?
Life as we know it could not exist without Earth's magnetic field and its ability to deflect dangerous ionizing particles.

Scholes finds novel magnetic field effect in diamagnetic molecules
The Princeton University Department of Chemistry publishes research this week proving that an applied magnetic field will interact with the electronic structure of weakly magnetic, or diamagnetic, molecules to induce a magnetic-field effect that, to their knowledge, has never before been documented.

Origins of Earth's magnetic field remain a mystery
The existence of a magnetic field beyond 3.5 billion years ago is still up for debate.

New research provides evidence of strong early magnetic field around Earth
New research from the University of Rochester provides evidence that the magnetic field that first formed around Earth was even stronger than scientists previously believed.

Massive photons in an artificial magnetic field
An international research collaboration from Poland, the UK and Russia has created a two-dimensional system -- a thin optical cavity filled with liquid crystal -- in which they trapped photons.

Read More: Magnetic Field News and Magnetic Field Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to