World's First Lab to Study Human Decomposition in Cold Climate

Northern Michigan University's FROST lab is the world's first outdoor facility to study human decomposition in a cold climate

By Lauren Everett

An interdisciplinary team of researchers—including archaeologists, soil scientists, climatologists, and forensic anthropologists—have collaborated to establish a facility at Northern Michigan University (NMU) that will address some of the major challenges in the field of forensics in addition to providing specialized training for law enforcement and government agencies.

The FROST lab, which stands for Forensic Research Outdoor Station, actually encompasses both indoor and outdoor facilities. The indoor facility, referred to as FARL (Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory) is the location for all donor collection and storage. It is also where skeletal analysis and forensic casework take place. Meanwhile, the outdoor area specializes in a field of research known as forensic taphonomy—the study of all the processes that affect a body after death.

FROST is the eighth such facility of its kind in the world, and the first “cold climate” site to study human decomposition. The first outdoor taphonomy research facility was initiated by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1981. Since then, numerous other universities, including Western Carolina University, Texas State University, and the University of South Florida, have created similar research environments. Work at FROST officially began at the outdoor component of the lab in August 2017; the indoor FARL facility became operational in July 2018.

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Dr. Jane Wankmiller, director of FROST, said that taking the position was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Wankmiller brings extensive experience in forensics and death investigation to the lab, having worked on nearly 200 crime cases with the Michigan State Police (MSP) as a death investigator. Her most recent position prior to directing FROST was as the unidentified remains coordinator in the Missing Persons Coordination Unit, but she also conducted facial recognition searches and served as a forensic artist during her time with the MSP. According to Wankmiller, two aspects of the director position at FROST really appealed to her—first, the opportunity to mentor students and work with faculty in other disciplines, and second, the ability to participate in the decision making for the construction of both the indoor and outdoor sections of the facility.

“My experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive. There has been no shortage of things to accomplish in any given week or on any given day, but the momentum has continued to be in a forward and upward direction, which continues to be inspiring,” said Wankmiller.

Construction and design

Specific considerations had to be taken into account when developing the indoor and outdoor facilities. A preexisting office space on campus was redesigned to accommodate the FARL facility. As Wankmiller explained, safety, security, and integrity of the team’s research were high-priority concerns. Therefore, a separate air return was installed so the lab space didn’t recycle the same air being used in office spaces when the air conditioner or heater was running. Wankmiller also requested the installation of swipe card readers at the main entrances to the building and the FARL lab itself, to limit access and track the activity of those who do have access. For the outdoor space, choosing the fencing material to enclose the area was a main factor in the design. “We needed a material that would ensure privacy for our donors and could withstand strong winds off of Lake Superior, meaning the structure had to be sturdy, but the fencing had to be porous so it wouldn't act as a sail,” said Wankmiller. The team chose a chain-link fence with privacy slats that are lined with 98% opaque fabric.

Although FROST is unique because it is the only facility of its kind located in a cold-weather location, unpredictable weather is also one of the biggest obstacles Wankmiller faces when operating the lab. Gaining access to the outdoor site during periods of daily snowfall can cause issues, but Wankmiller credits her colleagues at NMU for helping ensure these types of logistical problems get solved quickly and efficiently.

Establishing the “groundwork”

Before any meaningful research projects could be done at the FROST facility, Wankmiller’s team needed to conduct a soil analysis of the area prior to placing any human remains there for studies. For this, NMU’s soil scientist Dr. Matt Vangrisven and a team of students carried out the analysis. Additionally, archaeologist Dr. Scott Demel led a shovel probe survey to see whether any culturally significant resources would be affected by work in the area, and climatologist Dr. Norma Froelich compared data collected from a weather station installed at the site with data from nearby National Weather Service (NWS) stations to determine whether the NWS climate data could be used if FROST’s station ever malfunctions. One of Wankmiller’s students compiled research on the history of the land as well, providing the team with a full scope of information to enhance all future projects.

The main focus of research at FROST revolves around forensic taphonomy. Currently, the team is documenting the condition of donor bodies in the outdoor facility and how the specific environment will alter their condition over time. “This is something that can be compared with observations from the other research facilities, which will help us understand regional and climatic variation in human decomposition and taphonomy,” said Wankmiller. An entomology project has also been initiated and will focus on how the arrival of different species of insects, as well as bacterial populations, affects human remains. Two faculty members and a graduate student will conduct seasonal data collection, and it is hoped that the results will provide insight into using evidence from human remains to determine how much time has passed since death. A separate study underway aims to boost current knowledge of how temperature affects internal bacteria that aid in decomposition. “I believe we will be able to make significant contributions to taphonomy research during our winter and spring months, when we can really assess the effects of deep snow and repeated freezing and thawing on human decomposition,” said Wankmiller.

The FROST facility will also help educate those new to forensics and law enforcement, as well as those already experienced in the field, through specialized training and program courses. In June, FROST held its first law enforcement-focused training in cooperation with the NMU Public Safety Institute. Attendees of the week-long FASElinks workshop, run by forensic artist Duncan Way, learned about composite drawing and interview techniques. Wankmiller hopes to add more workshops to the facility’s agenda that focus on facial reconstruction and other aspects of forensic art that can assist with victim identification and locating missing persons. Other specific course topics are still to be determined, but they will likely be geared toward death investigation, search and recovery, and forensic anthropology.

Because FROST is such a new facility, Wankmiller has a strong vision for its future and numerous goals for her team. For now, she is working on procuring X-ray equipment that can be used to take dental X-rays, which can help local law enforcement obtain positive identification of remains that otherwise may be difficult to confirm. “I am also working on building curriculum that will provide our students with an important knowledge base for working not only in my lab, but as forensic scientists in general,” said Wankmiller. In the long term, she hopes to establish research collaborations with other universities and government agencies that will continue to improve upon current methods and techniques used in forensic science.

article imageDr. Matt Van Grinsven (in blue) and a group of his students at the outdoor FROST site. article imageDr. Jane Wankmiller, director of the FROST lab. article imageDr. Matt Van Grinsven (far left) and Dr. Jane Wankmiller (center) in the field with a group of students from the university’s soil science class.
 article imageFrom left: NMU students Andrew Brady and Riley Jepkema, with FROST director Dr. Jane Wankmiller and fellow student Rachel Smith.  Dr. Jane Wankmiller works with NMU student Andrew Brady.Credit: Northern Michigan University.

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