Illustration of an Atlantic White-sided Dolphin and a Long-finned Pilot Whale, two marine mammal species that strand in Cape Cod. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe
Dec. 8, 2017 (Phys.org) -- The age-old mystery of why otherwise healthy dolphins, whales and porpoises get stranded along coasts worldwide deepens: After a collaboration between NASA scientists and marine biologists, new research suggests space weather is not the primary cause of animal beachings -- but the research continues.
The collaboration is now seeking others to join their search for the factors that send ocean mammals off course, in the hopes of perhaps one day predicting strandings before they happen.
Scientists have long sought the answer to why these animals beach, and one recent collaboration hoped to find a clear-cut solution: Researchers from a cross-section of fields pooled massive data sets to see if disturbances to the magnetic field around Earth could be what confuses these sea creatures, known as cetaceans. Cetaceans are thought to use Earth's magnetic field to navigate. Since intense solar storms can disturb the magnetic field, the scientists wanted to determine whether they could, by extension, actually interfere with animals' internal compasses and lead them astray.
During their first investigation, the scientists -- from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW; and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM -- were not able to hammer down a causal connection.
"We've learned so far there is no smoking gun indicating space weather is the primary driver," said Goddard space weather scientist Antti Pulkkinen. "But there is a sense that geomagnetic conditions may be part of a cocktail of contributing factors."