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Researchers launch study to examine possible link between space weather, animal beachings

Powerful geomagnetic storms that erupt in outer space have been known to cause disruptions to power grids, radio communication and satellites that orbit Earth.

But could space weather also have an impact on the navigational abilities of certain marine animals?

In February, it was announced that researchers from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) would combine with NASA on a study that would examine how solar storms may impact the internal compasses for certain species.

humpback whale

Veterinarians with the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteer during the necropsy of a humpback whale calf that stranded on Baranof Island, Alaska. (Photo/Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC)

Antti Pulkkinen, a NASA heliophysicist who will co-author the study, provided several theories on why space weather conditions may result in healthy whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, washing ashore.

“Theories as to the cause include magnetic anomalies and meteorological events, such as extreme tides during a new moon and coastal storms, which are thought to disorient the animals,” said Pulkkinen, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“It has been speculated that due to the possible magnetic-field sensing used by these animals to navigate, magnetic anomalies could be at least partially responsible," Pulkkinen said.

Human applications, such as devices that use sonar to map the ocean floor, are also believed to impact the animals.

“However, these human-made influences do not explain most of the strandings,” Pulkkinen said in a statement.

New Zealand, Australia and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are some of the most notable locations for strandings around the world. This is because those locations share similar physical characteristics including gradually sloping beaches, extreme tidal fluctuations and fine sand and sediment that could affect echolocation, according to Katie Moore, director of IFAW’s Animal Rescue Program and collaborator on the study.

If they can determine a relationship, researchers hope that observations of solar storms could serve as an early warning that strandings could occur.

“This would allow stranding responders in global hotspots, and really around the world, to be better prepared to respond, thus having the opportunity to save more animals," Moore said.

One week after researchers announced the study, hundreds of pilot whales died due to a mass stranding in New Zealand in one of the largest mass beachings in the country's history.

whale beachings

In this Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, photo, whales are stranded at Farewell Spit near Nelson, New Zealand. (Tim Cuff/New Zealand Herald via AP, File)

The study is expected to be finished by September 2017 and will be compiled using information from NASA's space weather databases as well as data from hundreds of mass strandings compiled by the IFAW and BOEM.

Researchers have examined many different theories on why beachings occur. However, this is the first to examine if impacts can be caused from outer space.

If the study does reveal a statistical correlation, the researchers cautioned that the results would not necessarily imply a link, but it would be the first step in proving if the hypothesis is correct.

"So far, there has been very little quantitative research, just a lot of speculation,” Pulkkinen said. “What we’re going to do is throw cold, hard data at this. It’s a long-standing mystery and it’s important that we figure out what’s going on.”