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How lightning killed nine Queensland cattle in one strike – and what it has to do with climate change

Experts say lightning strikes 1.5bn times a year, but global heating is causing them to shift further away from the equator

Grazier John Ellrott from Morinish in central Queensland said nine of his cows perished after an apparent lightning strike earlier this month.
Grazier John Ellrott from Morinish in central Queensland said nine of his cows perished after an apparent lightning strike earlier this month. Photograph: John Ellrott
Grazier John Ellrott from Morinish in central Queensland said nine of his cows perished after an apparent lightning strike earlier this month. Photograph: John Ellrott

Nine cattle were struck by lightning and killed in central Queensland earlier this month during an incident experts say could become more common with climate change.

Grazier John Ellrott said a heatwave that was affecting his property at Morinish and the surrounding Rockhampton region on 7 March culminated in a dry electrical storm. The next day Ellrott discovered his cows dead in a heap in a paddock.

“They must have copped the full force of it because there wasn’t any sign of a struggle. Their knees just collapsed underneath them,” he says. “Alive one minute, dead the next.”

The loss of the cattle he reared was the equivalent of three weeks’ wages for his employees – approximately $18,000.

Bluff grazier Cathy Hoare also lost two cows and two calves at her Rockyview property 80km away.

What were the conditions?

Ellrott said there hadn’t been a wet season this year and the rain they had received before Christmas had dried out.

“We were extremely dry, while the south-east corner was getting swept away.”

He believes his cattle were killed instantaneously, which he says is better than losing them to flooding, as happened in the northern rivers recently.

The silver lining for Ellrott was that 110mm of rain followed the storm.

How did it happen?

Science communicator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki told Guardian Australia that “almost certainly” the lightning bolt didn’t hit the cows at all.

He said lightning will “sniff” the lowest resistance pathway as it’s coming down.

“When it gets close enough to the ground, the charge becomes large enough [and] this huge bolt then goes upwards. This travels 1,000km a second,” he said.

Kruszelnicki cited an incident at Dorrigo in northern NSW in spring 2005 after a bolt of lightning hit a nearby tree and killed 68 jersey cows – the Guinness world record for the most cows killed by lightning.

“Then an electric field started spreading out in all directions,” he said.

“Now there’s a significant difference in space between the front leg and the back leg of a cow if it’s facing the lightning bolt.

“If we assume that at the front legs of a cow the electric field was say a million volts per metre, and a metre further away at the back legs the electric field was weaker, that is three-quarters of a million volts per metre.

“Which means between the front and back legs there was a quarter of a million volts, and that was enough when it went through the heart, to interfere with the beating of the heart, and so kill the cow with no visible burn marks,” he said.

How common is it?

Mark Collins, chair of Ag Force’s Ag Business Committee, said the occurrence was not common, but does happen.

He lost 10 head of cattle 20 years ago in a severe electrical storm.

However, he said it’s unusual to have severe electrical storms in central Queensland at this time of year, since they typically occur through spring to early summer.

Collins said during a storm cows will huddle together in a group, but he’s only seen deaths occur when they congregate against a fence, which conducts electricity.

Ellrott said he doesn’t believe the fence had anything to do with the death of his cattle. The lightning was so powerful, he said, if it had hit the fence it would have melted the wire.

According to Kruszelnicki, there are approximately 1.5bn lightning bolts every year, mostly near the equator.

“But then as you get further away from the equator the number drops right down. But with global warming the lightning bolts are shifting further away from the equator,” he said.

Cameron Clark, professor of Livestock Production and Welfare at the University of Sydney, agreed this was an unusual occurrence but could become more frequent as extreme climate events occur.

“I’m sorry to hear this and wish our farming families all the best as I am sure that this would be upsetting,” he says.