Over 300 Reindeer Killed by Lightning in Unusual Natural Disaster

The Norwegian Environment Agency has recently released a series of haunting images of at least 323 dead reindeer – 70 of them calves – killed in what has been described as one of the deadliest lightning strikes ever.

It is unclear exactly when the natural disaster occurred, but the hundreds of dead bodies were discovered on Friday by a group of hunters in a remote area of the barren Hardanangervidda plateau, in central Norway. Spanning some 8,000 square kilometers, Hardangervidda is the largest high mountain plateau in northern Europe and the largest national park in Norway, with a population of 10,000 to 11,000 wild reindeer.

While the specifics of the mass death will probably never be known, experts say that animals tend to huddle together in extreme weather, which makes it easier for lightning to pass through their bodies. Norwegian officials say that multiple animal deaths caused by lightning strike is not very uncommon, but the scale of this event is definitely unheard of. “We are not familiar with any previous happening on such a scale,” Kjartan Knutsen of the Norwegian Environment Agency said. “Individual animals do from time to time get killed by lightning, and there are incidents where sheep have been killed in groups of 10 or even 20, but we have never seen anything like this.”



According to National Geographic, in 1990, a thunderstorm killed 30 cattle on a farm in Orange County, Virginia, and in 2005 a lightning strike killed 68 cows at a dairy farm outside Dorrigo in New South Wales, Australia. Also, in 2008 a lightning outside of Montevideo, Uruguay struck a wire fence, killing all 52 cattle grazing inside. But all these events pale in comparison with Friday’s lightning strike, at least when it comes to the number of animal casualties.

So how exactly does a lightning strike kill 323 reindeer? John Jensenius, a lightning safety expert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Verge that when animals or humans are huddled in groups, most of them are killed by the ground current. “First, there’s a direct strike — this is what most people think of when they think of lightning — that hits the tree or maybe the ground nearby. The energy then spreads along the ground surface, and if you’re anywhere near that lightning strike, you absorb it and get shocked,” Jensenius said. “Lightning goes up one leg and down another. Animals are more vulnerable because their legs are spread out more, so the ground currents travel more easily in their bodies. It doesn’t matter if they’re touching, or exactly how close they are, it matters that they were all in the area hit by lightning. Ground currents are the thing that’s responsible for the most lightning deaths and injuries in both people and animals.”



Olav Strand, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, inspected the site of the mass death on Sunday and told The New York Times that the animals appeared to have died “as if someone just turned off a switch.”

“The lightning was fierce, the amount of water pouring down that day was incredible, and the whole group was found dead at the scene, placed as they usually are, huddled into a group, with some standing in two lines on the side and a larger congregation in the middle,” Strand added. “They were standing on a hill, moving up that hill. They seem to have fallen dead on the ground, exactly where they stood.”


The only other known lightning-related mass death that even compares to this recent natural disaster dates back to 1918, when a forked lightning allegedly killed 654 sheep, in Utah.

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