By Kacey Deamer, Staff Writer | February 3, 2017 05:38pm ET
Why do otherwise healthy sea creatures end up stranded along coastal areas around the world? NASA scientists are searching for the answer.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises — known collectively as cetaceans — partially use magnetic-field sensing to navigate. According to NASA scientists, one explanation for these mysterious strandings could be that the animals' internal compasses become confused during severe solar storms, which affect Earth’s magnetic fields, and so they lose their way. To investigate this marine mystery, NASA has launched a study that will determine whether there is a link between solar storms and animal beachings.
Cetaceans become stranded around the world in groups as small as three or as large as several hundred per event. According to Katie Moore, a collaborator on the NASA study and director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Animal Rescue Program, the global phenomenon occurs most often in New Zealand, Australia and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Despite the prevalence of such beaching events, study leader Antti Pulkkinen, a heliophysicist (a person who studies the effects of the sun on the solar system) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said there has been very little quantitative research.
"We estimate that records on the order of hundreds of cetacean mass strandings will be available for study, thus making our analyses statistically significant," Pulkkinen said in a statement. "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."