Somewhere Santa is mourning.
More than 300 reindeer were found dead in Norway on Friday, their bodies sprawled across a hillside on the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.
Experts say that lightning most likely caused the grisly sight. But for many people who have seen images and video of the eerie scene that answer has raised some suspicion.
How could a lightning strike create so many casualties?
“Lightning does not strike a point, it strikes an area,” said John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service. “The physical flash you see strikes a point, but that lightning is radiating out as ground current and it’s very deadly.”
It’s possible that a single bolt could have hit one or two reindeer directly, he said, but the majority of the carnage was caused by ground current. When the electric discharge touches down it spreads out in search of places to travel. The reindeer, with their four hooves on the grass, presented potential pathways where that current could flow.
“The electricity would go up one leg of the body and stop the heart and go down and out another leg,” he said. “In an instant, of course.”
The same thing can and does happen to humans, Mr. Jensenius said, but animals are particularly vulnerable because they have more legs and their legs are further apart. The greater the distance between two legs, the greater the chance that electricity will try to flow through them, and the stronger that charge will be.
Though the reindeer were in a herd when they died they did not have to be touching to get electrocuted. They only had to be touching the ground within an area about 160 to 260 feet in diameter from where the strike or strikes hit. The 323 reindeer most likely dropped dead from cardiac arrest where they stood and did not go flying in the air, like in some movies. Mr. Jensenius said that it’s likely the lightning would have struck that location whether the reindeer were there or not.
He added that this case is unusual because of the large number of reindeer that were killed, but that it isn’t uncommon for livestock to be felled by lightning. The most cattle ever killed by lightning is 68 according to the Guinness World Record. There are also reports of lightning apparently striking many types of animals, including 53 pigs and 143 goats in China, 16 bulls in Scotland, a giraffe at Disney World, and even one historical account of two bolts killing 654 sheep in Utah.
Lightning is dangerous to people as well, and in June of this year more than 70 people in India were killed by lightning.
Mr. Jensenius said that we can learn from the reindeer’s misfortune.
“It should be a lesson to the people as to what can happen in a thunderstorm,” he said. “When thunder roars, go indoors.”