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No. 123: May-Jun 1999

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Mysterious Mountain Deaths

Occasionally, young, healthy hikers are discovered lying dead in the mountains without a mark on them. The answer to this mystery may be in the magnetic pulses created by close lightning strikes.

Most deaths from lightning are from direct strikes, side flashes, or ground currents. The ground currents kill by passing up one leg and down the other. Cows sheltering under trees are even more susceptible than humans because they contact the ground in four places! People and animals electrocuted by these phenomena bear burn marks and other clues pointing to the cause of death.

As for those "mysterious mountain deaths," M. Cherington and colleagues at the Lightning Data Center, Denver, suggest that these unlucky individuals may have been zapped magnetically. Lightning strikes can create electrical currents as high as 100,000 amperes in rocks and soil. These, in turn, create intense magnetic pulses that induce small electrical currents in nearby objects, such as hikers. Although small, these internal currents are sufficient to stop heart action -- without leaving tell-tale signs.

(Anonymous; "Mystery Mountain Deaths and Lightning," Journal of Meteorology, U.K., 23:230, 1998.)

From Science Frontiers #123, MAY-JUN 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss