This time of year, Norway’s Hardangervidda is strikingly beautiful. Streams of cool mountain water gently carve their way through vibrant green hills, under a never-ending blue sky.
But on Friday, August 26, 2016, that tranquil sky turned violent, as an apparent electircal storm killed over 300 reindeer – and left the mountain plateau’s surface littered with their bodies.
Officials can only guess as to how this tragedy occurred, but they believe a massive electrical discharge electrocuted them, simultaneously, as they grazed. Kjartan Knutsen, an official at the Norwegian Environment Agency, commented on the incident in a phone interview with The New York Times on Monday.
“We are not familiar with any previous happening on such a scale,” said Mr. Knutsen. “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.”
Reindeer traverse the Hardangervidda region in droves during annual season changes. From drier lands in the east, they seek Norway’s western wetlands, where they breed.
“Reindeer often huddle together in groups during thunderstorms,” Mr. Knutsen added. “It is a strategy they have to survive, but in this case their survival strategy might have cost them their life. The corpses are all lying in one big group, piled together.”
The lightning appeared to have killed an entire herd, including 70 calves and five adult reindeer who were mercifully put-down due to severe electrical burns. The storm’s death toll is officially listed at 323.
There is one upside to the tragedy, however. Knutsen says the reindeer will be examined for symptoms of chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disorder detected in other reindeer in southern Norway. The study is part of an ongoing effort to stave off the disease.
“The test results for the herd killed by lightning can give crucial answers in understanding how much the disease has spread,” said Knutsen. As for the rest of the reindeer corpses, he added: “That remains to be decided upon within the next couple of days. The normal routine in such cases is to let nature take its course.”