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Could solar ‘storms’ explain whale strandings on beaches in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and other North Sea coasts?

PUBLISHED: 12:50 05 September 2017 | UPDATED: 15:30 05 September 2017

A whale washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach. Picture: Chris Bishop

A whale washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach. Picture: Chris Bishop

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Could a solar storm in space hold the key to a spate of whale strandings around the North Sea?

A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Almost 30 sperm whales washed up around the UK, Dutch, German and French coasts in early 2016.

They included a 30ft bull calf, which became trapped on the rocks beneath Hunstanton cliffs as rescuers tried to refloat it.

A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.

MORE - battle to save beached whale at Hunstanton



Three more whales, believed to be from the same pod, later washed up on the opposite side of The Wash at Skegness.

Post mortems showed that both these creatures and whales of similar age found beached around the European coastline appeared to be healthy and well-fed.

There was speculation that they could have become confused in shallow water because of vibrations from wind farms or sonar from naval vessels.

A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.A sperm whale is stranded on Hunstanton Beach near the cliffs. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Now scientists say that solar storms which affect the Earth’s magnetic field may be responsible.

In the preface to their research, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, they say: “Mass strandings of whales have often been documented, but their causes and underlying mechanisms remain unclear.

“We investigated the possible reasons for this phenomenon based on a series of strandings of 29 male, mostly bachelor, sperm whales in the southern North Sea in early 2016.

Investigations begin on whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.Investigations begin on whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“Whales’ magnetic sense may play an important role in orientation and migration, and strandings may thus be triggered by geomagnetic storms.”

They say young sperm whales may not have any experience of the phenomenon because they have spent their lives in deeper waters where the Sun’s magnetic impacts are lower.

They add: “Naïve whales may therefore become disoriented in the southern Norwegian Sea as a result of failing to adopt alternative navigation systems in time and becoming stranded in the shallow North Sea.”

Scientists have been trying to find out why whale strandings are on the increase. Picture: Matthew Usher.Scientists have been trying to find out why whale strandings are on the increase. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Crowds flocked to see the whales before they were cut up and taken away to landfill.

MORE - crowds flock to see whale washed up on Hunstanton Beach



Strandings have increased in recent years. Some believe it could simply be down to the creatures’ population increasing.

A fin whale washed up on the beach between Burnham Overy Staithe and Holkham. Picture: Chris BishopA fin whale washed up on the beach between Burnham Overy Staithe and Holkham. Picture: Chris Bishop

Rob Deaville, from the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, researches whale and dolphin deaths around our shores.

He said: “I think this is an intriguing and thought provoking piece of research. It certainly adds another dimension to last year’s events and provides a plausible hypothesis for the strandings. However, at this stage it’s probably still only a hypothesis and doesn’t provide firm evidence of causality for the strandings.

“As always with these kind of events, further research is required and I think additional work would be needed to look at geomagnetic storm activity, both in relation to this set of strandings and of course the wider issue of historical strandings of deep diving cetaceans in the North Sea region.

“In any event, if this was a factor in the stranding of the whales - and it’s still just an if at the moment - it may well also be only one of several factors that influenced the series of strandings. Unfortunately, as I said last year, given the many uncertainties around last year’s events, it’s certainly possible that we may never fully understand all the potential drivers behind them.”

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