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Movement of Bodies in Lake Ontario

TYLER G. OBRIEN

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Introduction
This paper explores the use of information about the effects of wind, temperature, and the movement of lake water as it may affect human remains. One focus is to understand the potential for the movement of human bodies in a lake environment using limnological models. A second focus is on the environmental limits for the formation of adipocere in aquatic settings. By way of illustration, a case study is presented of an unidentied adipociferous body found on the shores of Lake Ontario for which the possibility of multiple taphonomic pathways limits the estimation of postmortem interval.

Lake Effects
A typical lake passes through four phases which may be broken down into two distinct categories: the overturn cycle and the stratied cycle (Boyce et al. 1989, 1991; Hough 1958; Pickett 1977; Simons and Schertzer 1987). In the spring, due to winds and the resultant current action, the water is in upheaval. In early spring, shallower water near shore warms more rapidly. This rise in temperature causes the warmer water to migrate away from shore, converge with colder offshore water, and sink. This overall turbidity is known as the spring overturn. After the convergence, the water becomes differentially warmed due to mixing (Boyce et al. 1989, 1991). The onshore water temperature increases above 4C. and, due to its higher density, sinks, gradually increasing the overall lake temperature. In addition, the onshore/offshore pressure gradient pushes warm water offshore. The effect of mixing is countered by the earths rotational force, known as the Coriolis effect. Coupled with the wind, the water tends to deect the waves to the right of the wind, setting up a counterclockwise pattern of surface movement. A oating object within such a pattern would be affected by centrifugal force, causing it to move away from the center and toward shore (Boyce et al. 1989). Winds blowing across the center of the lake will additionally force the nearshore water along until it reaches the end of the lake, meets the currents from the other side, and they converge. Their direction now moves toward the center of the lake opposite the wind direction. This sets up a cycle where surface water warms and subsurface water cools to 4C. The combined result of the Coriolis effect and wind provides enough force for upwelling to occur on one shore and downwelling on the opposite shore. In Lake Ontario, the spring upwelling occurs on the northeast shore and the downwelling on the southeast (Simons and Schertzer 1987). The modications of the upwelling and downwelling circulation depend on the lakes thermal stratication and basin geometry (Boyce et al. 1989).

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The second phase of lake effects occurs in the summer when the water is stratied into an upper (epilimnion) layer and a lower (hypolimnion) layer (Hough 1958). A convection current from blowing winds moves surface water in a counterclockwise direction, due to the Coriolis effect. A thermocline continues to separate the warmer, low density water on top from the cooler, higher density water on the lake bottom (Boyce et al. 1989, 1991). Weather conditions are the major factor determining the depth of each layer. Large-scale currents are restricted to the epilimnion, while the hypolimnion remains insulated from the atmosphere and the airwater interface. But, due to the circulation of the overlying layer, the shearing force against the cooler, lighter water moves it in a direction against the epilimnionic ow. Thus, the lower stratum maintains motion, while wind force from storm surges keeps the surface water circulating (Boyce et al. 1991). By the end of summer, the shore water warms again, convection disrupts the thermal bar, and the fall overturn is produced (Hough 1958). The overturn is primarily due to destabilization of the water column. It is followed by the winter stratication phase, a pattern similar to that following the spring overturn. Lake Ontario, the most easterly of the Great Lakes, has a long axis approximately parallel to prevailing winds. Its mean depth is about 86 m, and its maximum depth reaches 245 m (Boyce et al. 1989). A major inux of freshwater comes from the Niagara River located in the southeast corner of the lake. The mean monthly discharge of the Niagara River ranges from 3289 to 7590 m/s and furnishes about 83% of the total annual input (Aubert and Richards 1981). Particulate matter entering the lake will tend to be isolated into weight components, with the heavier, coarser particles settling to the bottom nearer the river (Boyce et al. 1991). Only forces such as storm surges produce enough power to resuspend these particles and ush them into the current.

Adipocere Formation
The formation of adipocere in aqueous environments has been documented by Cotton et al. (1987), Dix (1987), Mant (1960), Mant and Furbank (1957), OBrien (1994), Simonsen (1977), and Takatori and Yamaoka (1977). Complete transformation of all soft tissues to adipocere in water settings may occur in as little as 3 weeks, and has also been documented in cases up to 5 years after death (see Table 1).
Table 1 Case Reports Citing Bodies Found with Adipocere Environment Water Water Water Water Water Water Water (lab) Water Water Buried Buried Buried Buried Buried Time Period 5 years 1 year 10 months 6 months 4.5 months 4 months 2.5 months 3 weeks 3 weeks 100140 years 1 year 6 months 3 months 2.5 months Condition Complete Complete Complete Moderate Complete Slight Complete Minimal Complete Complete Complete Moderate Minimal Slight

Author (Year) Cotton et al. (1987) Mant and Furbank (1957) Dix (1987) Dix (1987) Takatori and Yamaoka (1977) Dix (1987) Mellen et al. (1993) Dix (1987) Simonsen (1977) Evans (1962) Rodriguez and Bass (1985) Rodriguez and Bass (1985) Rodriguez and Bass (1985) Rodriguez and Bass (1985)

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Adipocere formation occurs within a limited temperature range, generally tied to the optimum growth temperature for the bacterium Clostridium perfringens (welchii) (Corry 1978; Cotton et al. 1987; Payne and King 1972; Tomita 1975). Tomita (1975) notes the lower limit is 21C, Corry (1978) reports the optimum temperature is about 45C, and Bryan et al. (1962) reports the optimum at 35 to 37C. When the ambient temperature reaches a maximum or minimum, adipocere will not form due to a depression in the rate of bacterial action and enzymatic release. The temperature range must be just right, a requirement termed the Goldilocks phenomenon (OBrien 1994). When the water is too warm the tissues liquefy easily and tend to macerate. Soft tissue cells autolyze, subcutaneous adipose deposits melt, and the leaking uid adds to the liquefaction of all tissue. The soft tissue will decompose rapidly. If the water is too cold, decomposition slows, and, if the water is freezing, all bodily uid will freeze and crystallization will commence (Zugibe and Costello 1993). When the temperature is moderate, the body will decompose and putrefaction will ensue. Bacteria will emerge from their intestinal and vascular lodging to penetrate the bodys cellular network and destroy it. Subsequent release of the internal cells mass will cause a chemical reaction (i.e., saponication) between the bacteria, the watery environment, and the cellular contents resulting in adipocere. Over time it accumulates, encasing the bacteria until they eventually die or until there is no more soft tissue to hydrolyze. The body can remain in this state of preservation for an indenite interval (Bass 1984, Evans 1962). Even if brought to the surface, the adipocere will maintain its consistency. If allowed to dry, the transformed tissue will become a saponied, caseous mass of crumbling, chalky soap.

Adipocere Formation and Postmortem Interval


Gonzales and co-workers (1954), Spitz and Fisher (1980), and Taylor (1965) state that the complete adipocere transformation of soft tissue can occur in about 3 to 6 months. However, Simonsen (1977) has documented extensive adipocere formation appearing within only 22 days. A study of adipocere formation in an aquatic environment was conducted by OBrien (1994). Three human cadavers were immersed in excavated water-lled holes for three months in an outdoor setting. Observations were made of climatological and meteorological conditions, ambient air and water temperature, and gross morphological changes in the cadavers. Liquid and tissue samples extracted at intervals during the study were analyzed for fatty acid content and microbial composition. Not surprisingly, the study conrmed that a warm (21 to 45C.), moist, virtually anaerobic environment is suitable for adipocere formation, and that 3 months is sufcient time. Less expected were the results that the two bodies which formed adipocere were also the ones that oated the entire time of the study. Thus, complete immersion was neither necessary nor sufcient. The progression of morphological change which occurred in these two bodies was as follows: oat, bloat, insect activity, hatching, mummication/maceration, fungal growth, color loss, cutis anserina, and then adipocere formation.

Case Description
On April 8, 1992, the Onondaga County Medical Examiners Ofce in Syracuse, New York, recovered a body from a rocky shore of Lake Ontario behind the Alcan Aluminum Plant in Oswego. The partial body, found on the rocks in a supine position, with the head oriented to the east, was in an advanced state of decomposition with partial skeletonization of limbs and skull. No clothing was present except the elastic waistband from a pair of mens briefs positioned around the waist.

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Figure 1

(A) Posterior aspect of left humerus; (B) posterior aspect of distal right humerus; (C) anterior aspect of distal right tibia and bula; (D) anterior aspect of distal left tibia and bula. Unmarked areas represent portion which was missing; speckled areas represent sites of erosion.

Extensive abrasion was noted on the labial surface of the left maxillary canine, exposing dentin, on the nasal bones, the nasal aperture, the nasal spine, and the exposed frontal sinuses. The medial and lateral malleoli of the distal tibiae and bulae were missing and the distal shafts eroded (see Figure 1). The right distal humerus showed a similar pattern; medial and lateral epicondyles were missing, probably due to erosion. Despite the distal humerus erosion, soft tissue kept the radius and ulna attached. Bones of the right hand and both feet were absent. Tissue comprising the cheeks, lower neck, thorax, abdomen, and upper legs had been transformed into adipocere; the abdominal cavity had been perforated, exposing internal organs. Although no external genitalia remained, the prostate was discernible at autopsy (Germaniuk 1992). There are multiple fractures of all ribs; however, the lack of focal accumulation of blood in the surrounding soft tissue suggests they were sustained after death. A posterior occipital fracture which extends between the temporal bones could be peri- or postmortem, and may be due to impact on the rocks with the action of the waves or other causes. An estimated postmortem interval was developed using a taphonomic approach, including the abrasion of long bones and face, meteorological data for the weeks prior to discovery of the body, models of lake water movement, and inferences regarding adipocere formation.

Abrasion
The location and position of the body suggests the focal abrasion on the long bones and cranium may be a result of abrasion by rocks rather than water. The action of waves pushing the appendages back and forth against the rocks would have been sufcient to produce such localized soft tissue and bone loss. If the body had been trapped below the ice shelf or broken ice blocks it would have been subjected to damage due to solid abrasive matter contained within the ice itself (Boyce et al. 1989). Rock fragments, wood, silt, and sand may all be held within the ice layers (Fahnestock et al. 1973).

Meteorological Data
Environmental data at the Alcan Aluminum Plant provided current meteorological information about air temperature, wind speed, and wind direction for the week prior to recovery.

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Air temperature 9.1 m from shore ranged from 17.2 to 31.7C, while lake temperatures ranged more narrowly from 19.4 to 21.8C. Both high temperatures occurred the day before discovery. Weather reports stated conditions were mostly sunny, breezy and cool (Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation 1992).

Multiple Taphonomic Pathways


The condition of the remains reported earlier suggests multiple taphonomic processes: abrasion due to sand-imbedded ice; skeletonization and disarticulation due to decomposition and water movement; and adipocere formation due to relatively warm, moist, anaerobic conditions. The timing and, to some extent, the sequence of these events is unknown, however. Information about meteorological conditions and particularly lake effects suggests that the lake contains multiple depositional environments which vary according to depth, distance from shore, and season. Additional variation is added with consideration of weather and the proximity to the factorys efuent. Information from the literature about the formation of adipocere suggests it can form in as little as 3 weeks time, that its formation is temperature sensitive, and that it can form in bodies which oat. Examination of the context of discovery of the body suggests that the conditions at that location at that time of year are sufcient to explain the presence of localized and positiondependent bone abrasion as well as the presence of both wet and dried adipocere. The formation of the adipocere would probably have required a less aerobic microenvironment, and hence the body is hypothesized to have arrived at that location via lake current. Further, judging from the extent of the adipocere, the body most likely became located in a fairly stable, anaerobic setting, either oating or submerged, prior to extensive decomposition, and stayed there at least several weeks and probably longer. Given the temperature-sensitive nature of adipocere formation as well as the fact that the off-shore hypolimnion tends to be quite cold during all seasons, if the body had been submerged at that depth, both decomposition and adipocere formation would have been delayed, suggesting a longer postmortem interval would be more likely, perhaps even years. Alternatively, adipocere could have formed more quickly in the warmer waters near the surface and near the shore, assuming the body was protected from predators and excessive aeration as it oated (or was caught and held in place at a shallow depth). In that case, the postmortem interval might have been shorter, perhaps months. In the absence of further data, however, one cannot choose between these two plausible scenarios.

Summary
Lake Ontario provides a complex range of depositional environments for both oating and submerged remains. And, despite a number of studies of adipocere formation, many unknowns persist about this important postmortem process. Nevertheless, knowledge about the optimum conditions for adipocere formation, as well as documentation about its formation in oating remains, helped shape the taphonomic interpretation as well as the estimation of postmortem interval the case presented here. The limits of this interpretation point to a continuing need for systematic documentation of both the context of discovery and the condition of remains in future forensic cases in order to understand the range of variation of postmortem changes in aquatic settings, and ultimately increase of the accuracy of postmortem interval estimates.

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References
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