Solar storms are the new big, bad, looming apocalypse scenario. In fairness, the idea of the sun throwing fire at the Earth is terrifying, and a massive solar flare could make the rest of everyone’s days pretty terrible. A big solar flare, like the type we’re probably overdue for, could knock out our power grid and hurl the world into darkness and chaos. Which would be alright, assuming you could get out of the populated areas. Except you probably couldn’t make it away from the confused and hungry masses, because the GPS systems would be fried and no one has a sense of direction anymore. It’s ok, it’s ok, just take it as a warning and stop using GPS to navigate in the city or town you live in. And be thankful you’re not a Gray Whale. A recent study found evidence that the non-apocalyptic solar storms we experience regularly might mess with Gray Whales’ navigation abilities enough to throw them completely off course during migration.
The study comes from Jesse Granger and other bioconservation scientists at Duke University in North Carolina. Their research looked at the relationship between solar storms and whale strandings found that solar storms may disrupt whales’ navigational abilities and could be responsible for whales becoming stranded on their migratory routes.
Scientists are unsure if whales use magnetoreception—the natural ability to “read” the Earth’s magnetosphere—to navigate, but Granger says that migratory animals like Gray Whales are likely candidates because the ocean provides few other clues for navigation. Between March and June, the whales make their way from Baja California, Mexico to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Along the way, some whales inevitably get turned around and end up lost and stranded.
Granger and her colleagues looked at Gray Whale migratory data from 1985 to 2018 and found that on days with high levels of sunspots, otherwise healthy Gray Whales had a 4.8-fold increase in the likelihood of getting stranded. If Gray Whales are magnetoreceptive, this would suggest that the increased activity in the sun was interfering with the whales’ ability to read the Earth’s magnetic map.
During solar storms, the sun puts out an enormous amount of radiation, yet that radiation is mostly blocked from reaching Earth. Jesse Granger says:
“However, there’s a huge chunk in the radio frequency (RF) wave range that does make it all the way to the Earth. And, it’s been shown in several species that RF noise can disrupt a magnetic orientation ability.”
But researchers still don’t know if the Gray Whales even have a magnetic orientation ability. According to Granger, the only thing this study can tell us is that “whales are stranding a lot more often when the sun is doing crazy stuff.”
There may be another mechanism by which the sun is messing with whales’ migration, but what that could be is unknown. Researchers say that the next step is to study other migratory animals in situations where the magnetosphere would be harder to navigate by and determine if there is any correlation between those migratory patterns and solar storms.
This is another instance where we see a deeper connection between natural systems that, on the surface, don’t seem to be connected at all. How many other aspects of life are affected by solar storms and other invisible natural phenomena? And how many people are now going to blame getting lost on sunspots?