Whales Led Astray by the Sun


By David Isphording

Imagine the joy of walking along the beach: the sand, the sound of the waves, and birds flying through the air. Now imagine a beached whale blocking your path. This alarming scenario happens frequently each year on coastal beaches all across the planet, and not just with whales, but dolphins and porpoises, as well. These cetaceans find themselves out of the water, individually or in groups, beached and stranded, because they were confused and lost their way. Confused by what, though? 

Blame it on the Sun

The Sun belches enormous bubbles of charged particles into our solar system. These particles have been shown to significantly influence orbiting satellites and power grids when they collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Scientists wonder if these collisions also interfere with the navigation systems of cetaceans, which rely on magnetic fields, scrambling their operations and confusing the animals. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have teamed up to help save these animals and investigate why these beachings happen.

Making Observations

The researchers have identified some common characteristics surrounding these beaching events. First, the geography of the sites is often similar: gently sloping beaches with fine-grained sand. Also, some areas around the globe have a higher frequency of beaching than others, namely areas of Australia, New Zealand, and Massachusetts. Lastly, severe storms and extreme low tides during certain phases of the moon can also play a role.

Gathering Data

By joining forces, pooling resources and collaborating, the NASA, BOEM, and IFAW team will be able to draw upon a combined wealth of data. From these beaching reports, field recordings, and solar observations, they may be able to connect the dots regarding the cetaceans’ wayward landings and behavior. If solar emissions can be further linked to beaching, then scientists may be able to tell when a beaching event could occur due to the elevated solar and magnetic-field activity caused by the Sun’s charged gas releases. If this is the case, then scientists would have a warning when the solar storms occurred and could possibly take steps to protect the animals from stranding themselves. Let’s hope this will be the case and these beautiful creatures will stay safely in the water.

Discussion Questions

  • What else could possibly cause a beaching?
  • When a beaching does occur, what steps should be taken to help the animals get back in the water?