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How climate change is impacting forensic science

Posted at 10:00 AM, Jun 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-20 12:04:33-04

Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, has dropped 180 feet and is now less than 30 percent full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The water levels have dropped so low, grim discoveries are being revealed, and some believe it's only the beginning.

In May, the plunging water levels at Nevada's Lake Mead uncovered two bodies.

One was in a barrel. Las Vegas Police identified the remains as those of a homicide victim; a man who had been shot, likely between the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

The second set of remains were found in a newly surfaced sand bar and no foul play is suspected.

As authorities work to identify the remains, theories and folklore around the who, why, and how are circulating.

Oscar Goodman is Las Vegas' former longtime mayor. He says the city was born from the mob and is unlike any other city. "If they were able to identify the caliber of bullet, that would tell them an awful lot as to whether or not this is a "mob hit" or not," Goodman said. "Ordinarily, the mob in those days, if they were going to kill somebody, they took the person or they found the person outside of Nevada, outside of Las Vegas."

While there are still questions around the grim discoveries in Lake Mead, there seems to be one thing that's certain: more unidentified bodies could be located.

"The biggest thing for us is that we need to start preparing for these to be more frequent events for us," said forensic anthropologist and professor Jennifer Byrnes, of the University of Nevada - Las Vegas.

Byrnes says people in her profession are going to start receiving more cold cases from unexpected areas. She adds climate change is affecting her profession.

With water levels receding, wildfires increasing, and the frequency of storms like hurricanes, Byrnes believes discoveries, like those emerging from the once deep waters of Lake Mead, are only the beginning.

"Glaciers are melting and so those are revealing there's a lot of different examples of how climate change is impacting forensic science and human identification," she says.