Heath Brower- Staff Writer
Do you ever wonder where animals go when severe thunderstorms strike? Well, for a herd of reindeer in Hardangervidda, Norway, the top of a grassy plateau seemed as good a place as any. Unfortunately, this particular herd of reindeer soon found themselves directly under a very severe portion of a thunderstorm system working its way through Norway on August 29.
The storm most likely caused the herd to huddle together, as most herd animals do doing during severe weather events, said Dr. Robin Eppinga, a professor of Zoology at Dordt College.
Huddling in reindeer herds is thought to occur because it helps the reindeer from becoming separated while also helping the collective group of animals preserve body heat. The powerful storm produced intense lightning strikes which killed all 323 reindeer instantaneously.
According to Kjartan Knutsen, an official within the Norwegian Environment Agency quoted by the New York Times, it is not uncommon for animals to get struck by lightning and die, but rarely does an event kill hundreds of animals at once.
Despite how common or uncommon this phenomenon may be, the real question revolves around how lightning strikes can kill so many reindeer at once.
Channon Visscher, a professor of Astronomy and Chemistry at Dordt College, initially hypothesized that some of the electrical charge from the strikes could have traveled through the herd due to their close proximity and physical contact. However, he later stated that it is more likely that the mass death was caused by something called a ground current. Visscher explained that when lightning hits the ground, negatively charged electrons traveling from the cloud to the ground disperse outward in all directions in an attempt to equalize the large electric charge. Visscher noted that electricity will flow through the path of least resistance. Therefore, when an animal is standing near the lightning strike, their legs create a bridge for the electricity to flow through rather than the current-resistant ground. The electricity then flows from the charged ground closest to the strike to the lesser charged ground further away from the strike, resulting in a large shock within the animal’s body.
Eppinga then explained that when the large surge of electricity flows through an animal’s body, it depolarizes the pacemaker cells in an animal’s heart, which then stops the heart.
This unprecedented occurrence may have been shocking for the reindeer, but it was also shocking to the scientific community. The event serves to create an even greater appreciation for lighting and severe weather safety practices.