Lightning Suddenly Killed More Than 300 Reindeer, and Scientists Are Stunned

On a regular day, anybody visiting this Norwegian national park would undoubtedly have been met with indescribably beautiful scenery. But in late August 2016, the place was more like something from a horror movie. Yes, the usually magnificent park had been turned into a graveyard, littered with reindeer corpses as far as the eye could see.

The sinister pictures of the mass animal deaths, made public by the Norwegian Environment Agency (NEA) on August 28, 2016, have astounded the scientific community. Indeed, more than 300 dead deer lay strewn across the plateau, and experts say they’ve never seen anything like it.

It took place in Norway’s central-southern Hardangervidda National Park, which is a popular recreation spot for both tourists and locals. Although the mountain plateau boasts 2,500 square miles of usually placid and beautiful scenery, this eerie sight of death is enough to send people running for the hills.

ADVERTISEMENT

So what was it that stopped the hearts of 323 animals on the mountain that day? Strangely, the cause of the reindeer deaths is rooted in nature. In fact, the NEA believes the animals died during the previous Friday’s storm, and the most likely culprit was a lightning strike.

Although animal death due to lightning strikes is not uncommon, the sheer numbers involved here are unprecedented. “We’ve never experienced such numbers before. This is very large,” NEA spokesperson Kjartan Knutsen told CNN. The Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (NNI) attribute the high death toll to the reindeer’s herd instincts.

ADVERTISEMENT

“They were lying there dead in a fairly concentrated area. Reindeer are pack animals and are often close together,” spokesman Knut Nylend of NNI explained to the Norwegian News Agency. “During a heavy thunderstorm, they may have gathered even closer together out of fear. We don’t know if it was one or more lighting strike; that would only be speculation.”

ADVERTISEMENT

During the event’s news coverage on CNN, the media’s weather expert and meteorologist Chad Myers filled in another piece of the puzzle. “The lightning strike struck the highest part of land, and then we’ve got the ground current. It wasn’t that they were all touching each other and they got shocked,” he explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When the lightning hit the ground – or [more specifically] hit the water in the ground – the water in the ground conducted the electricity. It got into their hooves, into their legs and likely stopped their hearts. The same thing happens to humans, but if you give them CPR, you get them back,” Myers added.

ADVERTISEMENT

The plateau doesn’t see many visitors due to its isolated location, but since the park is in the middle of reindeer hunting season, inspectors were in the area when they found the corpses. Knutsen revealed that five reindeer were still breathing when the devastation was discovered, but sadly they couldn’t be saved.

ADVERTISEMENT

Initially, the cause of the deaths was only suspected. “We sent up a team of eight people to take samples to be sent to the Norwegian Veterinary Institute for research. Then we will know for sure how the animals died,” Nylend said. But a lightning strike has now been all but confirmed as the answer.

ADVERTISEMENT

The NEA took further samples from the dead deer, but – speaking to CNN – Knutsen said it was just for research. He explained, “We know they were killed by lightning, but this testing is for science.” What’s more, since dead deer aren’t usually removed, officials were at a loss over how to treat the corpses.

ADVERTISEMENT

Knutsen said because the corpses were in such large numbers, the agency had considered moving them. But they are far enough away from the tourist trails and water sources that they won’t pose a health risk, according to NEA’s Erik Lund. “We have no plans to bring animals out of the plateau,” Lund told broadcaster NRK.

ADVERTISEMENT

So on August 28, 2016, a team of officials were sent up into the mountains to the site where they removed the heads of the adult reindeer to access brain tissue for scientific sampling. Later, the Norwegian Veterinary Institute confirmed that no diseases were responsible for the animals’ deaths.

ADVERTISEMENT

The disturbing images may have been caused by a perfectly natural storm, but the thought of stumbling across a plateau of 300 rotting, beheaded reindeer is still a haunting one. Let’s hope no lost or inquisitive tourists find them before nature takes its due course.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of the 323 reindeer killed in total, sadly 70 of them were calves, according to the NEA. It’s a huge loss of life, though the numbers could have been much higher. According to the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center, Hardangervidda has the largest population of reindeer in the country, estimated to be somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, while lightning strikes on animals are not well-documented, it’s more common than people realize. According to Brent McRoberts from Texas A&M University, 80 percent of all accidental livestock death are caused by lightning. “Unless there is a barn nearby, livestock are out in the open during thunderstorms, so their chances of being hit are greater,” he explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, the day after Norway’s reindeer devastation, 19 cows were struck and killed by a single lightning bolt in Texas. “All of a sudden, a lightning bolt came down and the cows just fell,” an eyewitness told KLTV. And they weren’t the only lightning-related cattle deaths in 2015. In South Dakota, for example, 21 cows died when they were around a metal feeding bin that got struck by lightning.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, the Norwegian strike is one of the most deadly on record. Yet no one knows if it was indeed a single bolt or if more were involved. Nevertheless, to put the numbers involved here into perspective, the most cows ever struck dead from a single lightning bolt is 68, according to the Guinness World Records.

ADVERTISEMENT

Unfortunately, there have also been many human fatalities attributed to lightning storms. Most shockingly, in 1971 a bolt hit Peruvian airline Flight 508, killing 91 people. It was a tragic loss of life, but further death was prevented by German passenger Juliane Koepcke, who managed to seek help from nearby local villagers. Today, planes have engineered safety features to prevent such catastrophes.

ADVERTISEMENT

Stories of lightning strikes may sound like they belong in disaster movies, but they’re very real and a testament to the shocking power of nature. If you’re ever caught in a lightning storm, don’t use an umbrella or a cell phone, stay away from trees and get indoors as soon as possible. It may just save your life.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT