Solving strandings from space

Dolphins strand around the world, including right here on Cape Cod.Each year hundreds of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) strand around the world, including right here on Cape Cod, where my office is based at IFAW’s International Operations Center. I am regularly asked, why does this happen?

This year I am joining a team of researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to help shed some light on this very question. Our hypothesis is some mass strandings may be correlated with geomagnetic space storms. Which leads to the question, could these storms inadvertently be short-circuiting the internal compasses of many marine mammals causing them to lose their way? It is not a new theory, but it has been untested until now.

Throughout the next year we will overlay field recording data on the ocean environment and marine mammal strandings with documented space activity and look for trends to find out if there is a link between these wayward marine mammals and space weather.

We know stranding hotspots including Australia, New Zealand and Cape Cod share similar physical characteristics such as gradually sloping beaches, extreme tidal fluctuations and fine sand and sediment that could affect echolocation. Strandings in these particular locations have occurred for hundreds of years, so it is likely, for these areas, there is something happening other than possible human related causes, such as sonar. What else is at play?

Cetaceans like whales and dolphins are social creatures with a group mentality. In situations where injuries or illness is present in one individual, this can be detrimental to the entire pod bringing the whole group ashore. In the absence of sickness, what is causing them to head toward land en masse?

High winds and stormy seas can be disorienting and often bring animals farther inshore. Are mass strandings caused by simple factors like these or is something more complex happening at a higher level, perhaps all the way up in space?

My fellow researcher and Goddard heliophysicist Antti Pulkkinen explained that magnetic anomalies caused when the sun’s corona ejects gigantic bubbles of charged particles out into the solar system may disrupt magnetic-field sensing in animals as well. These events are known to wreak havoc on satellites and power grids and we are eager to find out if it is a factor here as well. If it is true we may be able to use reports of solar storms as an early warning for potential strandings thus allowing responders to be better prepared. Once we dig into the mountains of data from hundreds of strandings and thousands of space events, we will have a much better idea if there is a correlation.

We plan to complete the study by the end of the year and publish our findings in a peer reviewed journal so stay tuned. This groundbreaking research is made possible by NASA’s Science Innovation Fund and BOEM and we were lucky to be one of the few projects chosen this year.

--KM

IFAW’s stranding response is conducted under the authorization of a Stranding Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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