Dec 14, 2017 I Brett Tingley

NASA Space Weather Data Adds to Mystery of Mass Marine Mammal Deaths

For me, one of the scariest unexplained phenomena happening right now is the all-too terrifyingly common mass animal deaths which keep occurring around the world. From flocks of birds falling from the sky to whole pods of marine mammals washing lifelessly ashore, things aren’t looking good for the little (or large) critters of the natural world. While the somewhat blanket explanation of climate change is usually thrown out, animal die-offs have been occurring since long before the industrial age. Pinning down a cause for these massive die-offs has proven to be difficult, and now some new data released by NASA show that the causes of these mass animal deaths might be even more complicated and mysterious than we thought.

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As a kid, I would have loved to discover a giant dead whale on the beach. All I ever discovered was a boring dead old man. Worst summer vacation ever. Rest in peace Grandpa.

NASA and other space agencies have observed rather significant changes in both the Earth’s and the Sun’s magnetic fields lately, causing some biologists and earth scientists to wonder if these phenomena aren’t behind a recent spate of mass beachings. After all, it’s long been speculated that many animals use the Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation, including a broad class of marine mammals known as cetaceans which includes dolphins and whales. However, a massive study conducted by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has concluded that geomagnetic storms are not the primary cause of these events. The team gathered data on mass marine mammal strandings and cross-referenced those with space weather data to see if a correlation could be found between the two groups of events. Ultimately, they found none, even when they time-shifted the timeline of geomagnetic events forward and backward in relation to beachings.

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Perhaps is it foolish to think that we will ever truly understand the natural world.

In a press statement issued this week, NASA space weather scientist Antti Pulkkinen says that while disturbances in the Earth’s geomagnetic field can’t be ruled out, it’s likely not the lone reason for the marine mammal strandings:

We’ve learned so far there is no smoking gun indicating space weather is the primary driver. But there is a sense that geomagnetic conditions may be part of a cocktail of contributing factors. Although our analyses indicated that geomagnetic storms are likely not a major cause, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to completely exclude any possible factor from the mix. Our view is that strandings are likely caused by a complex combination of multiple environmental factors.

While no cause can be determined yet, the researchers plan to gather an even wider selection of data for further testing, including variables they haven’t tested yet including oceanographic data like plant growth, ocean temperature, currents, and wind. Through this research, these scientists hope to be able to one day predict when these strandings are going to happen so that they might be able to prevent them. I have to wonder, though: do we really want to know the reason why? Would knowing why these events happen make them any less frightening, or more? What if we discover that these animal deaths are only the beginning of something far more momentous? The history of the Earth shows that catastrophic, life-erasing natural events aren’t entirely uncommon on our fragile little planet. Who knows what dark patterns and apocalyptic omens we might uncover when we start to understand the song of the Earth. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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