Solar storms eject high-energy particles from the sun, which stream toward Earth and disrupt communications systems and the planet’s magnetic field. Researchers at Duke University and Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, reporting in Current Biology, believe these storms may cause some migrating gray whales to strand.
Scientists don’t entirely understand how gray whales accomplish their massive navigational feat between Alaska and Mexico each year, but think the whales may be guided by Earth’s usually reliable magnetic field. The Duke and Adler researchers studied 31 years of stranding data and found that strandings were over four times more likely when radio frequency noise from a solar outburst bombarded the Earth. The study authors suspect that the problem isn’t that the increased radio frequencies throw off the whales’ internal compass readings, but that the sudden burst of frequencies overwhelms and effectively shuts down the whales’ navigational system altogether.
The researchers state that their findings aren’t conclusive evidence for magnetoreceptive sensors in whales, but their study does point to the likelihood that gray whales depend on some type of magnetic sense for their incredible navigational abilities.
Solar storms are not the only reason that gray whales strand, however. Disease, malnutrition due to lower abundance of prey, and human activities such as the use of active sonar can also cause strandings.