Friday, March 17, 2023

Fact Check: Why Are Whales Beaching in NJ?

As you may have heard, several whales have recently beached themselves in and around NJ.  Experts are baffled by this trend.  We like whales.  They're awesome.  So we want to know why this is happening.

One theory is that this is related to wind farm construction.  The claim is that high tech sonar is being used to prepare for large scale proposed wind farms off the NJ coast.  According to this theory, sonar is disorienting the whales and they are beaching themselves, or surfacing and getting hit by ships.  

This makes a certain amount of sense since whales are known to use a type of sonar to "see" in deep water, find prey, and communicate.  They are also known to flee from some kinds of manmade sonar.        

On the other hand, beached whales have been happening for all of recorded history!  Sometimes they occur for observable reasons: disease, starvation, injury, old age.  But mostly the reasons are unknown.   

The question is, are these recent strandings (beachings) part of the normal background, are they possibly due to sonar, or are they spiking because of something else?   

I believe it's the sun!

No, I'm not suggesting whales are sunning themselves on the beaches of NJ.  I am, however, suggesting that whales are being disoriented due to solar magnetic activity and geomagnetic storms.

Here's the gist of it:  Whales use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate long distances.  At least that's the current thinking.  Meanwhile, the sun has a powerful and dynamic influence on Earth's magnetic field.  There seems to be a correlation between solar magnetic influence and whale strandings.  

There are two times in the roughly 11 year solar cycle (technically half cycle) when this correlation appears to be strongest;  around both solar minimums and solar maximums.  Solar minimums are when the sun's magnetic field is at its strongest and that seems to correlate with more beached whales. Then, around solar maximums, the sun's magnetic field weakens, but solar flares and giant explosions (Coronal Mass Ejections, CMEs), etc. create powerful geomagnetic storms that again correlate with beached whales.  

The correlation can be seen in the following graphs:  

The above graph shows two things worth noting:
1.  The solar minimum occurred in 2019.  Around the minimum is roughly the period when whale strandings peak on this graph.  

2.  We are very early in 2023 and are on pace to exceed the other years, which is to be expected since we just had a very active solar period and are heading into a solar maximum. 

Meanwhile on the West coast, a similar dynamic is playing out:  

 The above graph again shows two things worth noting:  

1.  A similar pattern to the East Coast centered around the time of solar minimum.  (this graph shows both months and years, highlighting the seasonality of whale migration.)  

2.  This graph includes UMEs from 1999 and 2000 (UMEs are Unusual Mortality Events) Both years were heading into solar maximums during active cycles.

(Both graphs are c/o NOAA Fisheries:  

Here's what happens with the sun's overall magnetic field during minimums and maximums:  

In the above graph, the A panel and the C panel show the inverse relationship between solar cycles and  magnetic field strength.  When the A panel (solar activity) is at minimum, the C panel (magnetic strength) is at maximum, and vice versa. 

(Graph is C/O  "Deciphering Solar Magnetic Activity: The Solar Cycle Clock" ) 

Speaking of solar maximums, the largest solar geomagnetic storm in recorded history happened in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event.  It occurred just as we were heading into a solar maximum.  The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, were visible as far south as Hawaii and Mexico.  The drawing at the top is of a beached whale in Long Island, NY, 1859.  Hmm.  

Now, if you're one of those, "correlation is not causation" types,  I get it.  I'm one too.  To be clear, I'm not presenting this as the be-all, end-all on this subject.  It's just some correlations and a theory.
That said, there are other solar/whale experts who also point to solar involvement, though they seem to be focused on geomagnetic storms.  My addition to this theory is that there is also a correlation with solar minimums when the sun's magnetic field strength is at its highest.

To recap:  there are two times in the roughly 11 year solar cycle that correspond to spikes in whale beachings.  The first is at minimum when the solar magnetic field is strongest, and the second is around the solar maximum when sun spots, solar flares, and CMEs create geomagnetic storms.   

So you may be asking, why is a blogger who writes mostly about politics and the economy writing about whales and the sun?

I became an amateur sun watcher after writing about global warming in 2019.  That piece is the most read thing on this blog.  If you're interested you can read it here:  Fact Check: The Truth About Global Warming

What I learned during my climate research is that the sun and stars are truly the most amazing objects around.  And we are just in the early stages of understanding them.  The first satellite devoted to the sun went up in the late 1970s.  Prior to satellites, we were limited in what we could observe from Earth's surface and from balloons.  Now we have dozens of satellites looking at all sorts of solar phenomena.  

And there's a lot to look at.  The sun is constantly spewing out atomic mass, radiation, protons, electrons, x-rays, charged plasma, magnetic fields, light, energy, heat, and on and on.  

And the sun is by no means constant.  It is incredibly dynamic, temperamental, and alive.  It's hard to overstate its impact.  It is the source of all life.  It is likely the source of all things non-living too.  If there's a God, the first item on the agenda had to be to create the sun and stars, for without them, nothing else could exist.

When the sun sneezes, the Earth catches cold.  Here's some fun facts about the scale of it all:  If the sun was a basketball on first base in Fenway Park, the Earth would be a tiny pea on home plate.  That basketball is so massive and powerful it is responsible for everything that happens in the entire Boston area.  The nearest star would be another basketball... in Honolulu.  The sun amounts to 99.86% of all the mass in our solar system.  Yeah, those giant planets Jupiter and Saturn combined with all the small ones like Earth together amount to a measly .0014 of the total mass in our solar system!  

In conclusion:  Could the sun mess with whales and cause them to beach in NJ?  I argue, yes.  Is this correlation proof?  No.  Could sonar still be the cause?  Possibly, but I see no evidence for that at all.  

(For the record, I'm not a fan of offshore wind farms.  Not because of what they might do to marine life, but because I've lived on the coast long enough to know that salt water and electricity make a bad combo. That, plus the dubious economics.)      

P.S. If you want to become an amateur sun watcher, here are some good sites to help you get started: