Mystery of hikers' deaths baffles scientists so far
Scientists are trying to solve the mystery behind a tragic story that started with a Mariposa, California family taking off for a hike and ended with them all missing and later found dead on the trail.
Every untimely death involves an investigation to determine the cause and whether or not anybody should be held responsible. However, this death investigation is far more mysterious and involves quite a few scientists.
It all started August 16 when a husband, wife, 1-year-old daughter and their dog all left for a day hike in the Sierra National Forest. When a family friend found they were not back the next day, she reported them missing. The entire hiking family and the dog were found dead on the trail in close proximity to each other. The investigation began.
It was a very hot day with temperatures above 100 degrees. That can cause a person to suffer from heat stroke, become disoriented and die. However, while hot, the temperatures were pretty typical for this location and the family was well prepared for a full day of hiking. Investigators found plenty of water with the family.
In addition, the family was in good health and, while heat stroke is a common health problem, it is extremely unlikely that an entire family and their dog all had heat stroke and died at the same time.
Could it be foul play?
The family and dog were all found with no injuries of any kind. An autopsy on all family members also turned up no obvious signs of injury or anything that would cause death.
Toxicology tests, which can detect poisons, are not back yet — so there is still some data missing. But unless a poison is detected, a crime is seeming less and less likely. The reason poisoning is unlikely is because, while poisons could certainly kill a person, it is unlikely it would kill three people and a dog at the exact same time as indicated by the family all found together. Just in case though, investigators are looking at their cell phones and social media accounts to see if they turn up anything out of the ordinary.
Pockets of deadly gas?
We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide can also be found in nature and in unique conditions can form a pocket of gas that can suffocate living things. There are abandoned mines in this area and it is possible that a pocket of carbon dioxide or other deadly gas came out of one of the mines and across the trail where the hikers were. This could suffocate the family fairly quickly, as they would not have oxygen to breathe.
While this scenario is possible, the problem is that the nearest open mine was three miles from where the family was found. Investigators find it unlikely that any pocket of deadly gas would make it that far without becoming dispersed.
A warming climate and drought conditions have caused many lakes and streams out west to warm enough to produce outbreaks of very thick mats of toxic algae. This algae grows out of control and releases toxins in the water that could make animals and humans sick and, in extreme cases, die.
It turns out the river running through this area does have an outbreak of toxic algae and the entire area is now closed. However, to become severely ill or die from the toxic algae, a living thing likely has to drink it. While it is conceivable a dog may run up to the river and drink, the family all had water in their bottles; so there would be no reason for drinking it.
In addition, most people just become very sick from toxic algae. The chances of it killing three people and a dog — and all at the same time — are quite rare. Even so, toxicology tests would likely detect if this was the cause.
Did lightning strike?
A new idea is that lightning could have struck in the nearby vicinity of the family and killed all of them. There were reports of some lightning strikes in the vicinity. You might think that everyone who gets struck by lightning has obvious burns, but that is not true. A nearby lightning strike can disrupt your neurological system without actually touching you.
However, while getting struck by lightning is never good — contrary to popular belief — only 10% of people struck by lightning are killed. While it is possible that this happened to the entire family and dog, it is not a likely scenario.
So what happened?
Nobody knows! This is one of those mysteries that science will hopefully be able to solve. It is not just important because everyone is curious. Death investigations occur in part to make everyone else safer by knowing what dangers are out there. It just so happens that this danger has been quite good at hiding itself — so far. Stay tuned!
Mike Szydlowski is science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
TIME FOR A POP QUIZ
1. How does the family all found together make so many scenarios unlikely?
2. If 250 people get struck by lightning in a year, statistically, how many of those people will survive?
3. While there are no physical injuries to the family or dog, why can murder not yet be completely ruled out?
4. We breathe out carbon dioxide every few seconds, so how can that gas kill people?
5. Why is it important for scientists to conduct death investigations?
LAST WEEK’S POP QUIZ ANSWERS
1. Some parts of New Orleans are 10 feet below sea level. If the sinking continues at its current rate, how far below sea level will the city be in 18 years?
18 years x 2 inches = 36 inches or 3 feet. Therefore, in 18 years, the city could be 13 feet below sea level.
2. What is meant by the sentence that says “nature always wins?”
The statement means that, at some point, the forces of nature will be stronger than humans' ability to protect the city.
3. The Mississippi River created New Orleans long ago. Why does it not help keep the city above sea level today?
Dams upstream and walls around the river keep the river from flooding and depositing new sediment on the land.
4. How did draining water from a swamp cause the city to sink?
When the water left, air pockets were exposed and the soil above them fell in to fill the gaps.
5. Pumping water out of the city is causing the city to continue sinking. Why don’t they just stop pumping water out?
Because so much damage (sinking) has been done, they are in a difficult spot because if they stop pumping out water, much of the city would be underwater.