The Solar storms that produce the Northern Lights may have been to blame for last year’s stranding of 29 sperm whales on beaches in the UK and other countries around the North Sea.
The whales washed up on the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts in January and February 2016, and there were also beachings in the Netherlands, Germany and France.
Scientists believe that whales – as well as other animals such as birds – use the Earth’s magnetic fields to help them navigate when they migrate.
But – writing in the International Journal of Astrobiology – a team of researchers argues that disruption to these fields by Solar storms can “lead to short-term magnetic latitude changes” that confuse the mammals.
The high-energy particles released towards the Earth during a Solar storm “deform the Earth’s magnetic field”.
These particles also produce the famous Northern Lights – and can interfere with communications systems, satellites and cause power blackouts.
A few weeks before the whales washed up, a Norwegian measuring station near Shetland recorded changes in the magnetic field intensity and inclination in the area.
It is at this crucial point that the migrating animals may have first strayed off course, making a “fatal” error, the researchers suggest.
They believe the first Solar storm caused a theoretical shift in the magnetic field by up to 460km north to south.
The second, which began on New Year’s Eve 2015, caused fluctuations equivalent to a latitude deviation of 277km.
The 29 whales that washed up were all males, which grow up at lower latitudes with a “largely undisturbed geo-magnetic field”.
The research team believes this means that younger males often “have no experience of random, abrupt geomagentic storms” and therefore are not used to switching to a different way of navigating.
Instead of swimming north of Shetland to search for squid, the whales made a fatal navigation error and headed south into the much shallower North Sea.
Three whales ended up stranded at Old Hunstanton in Norfolk on 22 January – but two managed to make it back to open water.
On 24 January, three beached near Skegness. A day later, another whale became stranded at Wainfleet, Lincolnshire.
The final UK beaching was on 2 February – again at Old Hunstanton.
The biggest stranding, however, was in Germany, when eight whales washed up near Kaiser-Wilhelm-Koog.