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The science behind the lightning strike that killed 323 Norwegian reindeer is morbidly intriguing

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Chris Sayer
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It looked like the scene from a slasher movie. Or should that be a Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen movie?

At the end of last week, a huge storm transformed the tranquil mountain plateau of Hardangervidda in Norway into the site of a massacre, as lightning appeared to have slain an enormous 323 migrating reindeer - an entire herd of the large beasts - in one foul swoop.

Experts on the scene described how they found the corpses in one large tangle, piled on top of each other; the air was filled with a smell both sweet and sour, and that it seemed as if someone had just "turned off a switch" to destroy the animals. 

“We are not familiar with any previous happening on such a scale,” Kjartan Knutsen from the Norwegian Environment Agency told the NY Times. “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.”

**CAUTION: SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND THE FOLLOWING FOOTAGE PRETTY GRISLY**

So what the Dickens could have happened to such a huge number of reindeer at once? Were the animals frightened to death? Are their antlers just really really great conductors? Or was Mother Nature exercising some cold hard revenge on Santa Claus?

In fact, the answer, it cruelly seems, comes in the form of the reindeer’s survival strategy – huddling together.

A reporter at tech and science site The Verge sought out scientific answer from John Jensenius, a lightning safety expert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here’s how he explained it:

“When animals or people are in groups, most are being 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.

“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.”

The chief executive of the Norwegian Animal Protection Alliance, Anton Krag, told reporters that he was “shocked” by the extent of the tragedy.

Too soon, mate. Too soon. 

(Image: iStock)

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Chris Sayer

Chris Sayer is a freelance journalist and editor based in London. Chris has interviewed some of the biggest names in entertainment and travelled the world doing an all manner of adventures for lots of brilliant magazines. He writes for Shortlist about booze but would probably prefer we let him write about fishing instead. Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisSayer00

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