Credit: John Nickles-USFWS
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
Thirty-five years ago, an Army helicopter pilot flying over a tundra plateau saw a group of caribou. Thinking something looked weird, he circled for a closer look. The animals, dozens of them, were dead.
The pilot reported what he saw to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The caribou, 48 adults and five calves, were lying in a group. The way their carcasses rested showed no signs that the animals had been running from a predator.
As word spread of the 53 dead caribou, people speculated what might have killed them: Nerve gas, toxic waste or some other dark secret from the Army post nearby, flying saucers, maybe a lightning strike?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sent wildlife disease specialist Ken Neiland to the site, about 33 miles southwest of Delta Junction. Glenn Shaw, a young atmospheric scientist from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, went with him. Shaw had studied lightning before.
From the air, the scientists saw a clue to the animals’ death, a giant “Lichtenberg figure” etched into the ground near the carcasses. A Lichtenberg figure is a pattern of cracks extending from a central bullseye.
Read on » » » »