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Submerged human corpses rise from drought-stricken Lake Mead

A rusted metal barrel, near the location of where a different barrel was found containing a human body, sits exposed on shore during low water levels due to the western drought at the Lake Mead Marina on the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nevada.
A rusted metal barrel, near the location of where a different barrel was found containing a human body, sits exposed on shore during low water levels due to the western drought at the Lake Mead Marina on the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nevada. (Image credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

First the drought came. Then, the bodies started washing up.

For over a decade, water levels have been plummeting in Nevada's Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in Clark County, Las Vegas, and one of the largest reservoirs in the United States. On May 1, receding waters due to regional drought led officials to a gruesome discovery on the reservoir's shore: a metal barrel holding a corpse that had been dumped into the water more than 30 years ago, CNN reported (opens in new tab)

Just a few days later, more human remains emerged in Lake Mead's Callville Bay, National Park Service (NPS) representatives said in a statement (opens in new tab). A witness reported finding "human skeletal remains" on May 7 at approximately 2 p.m. local time, and NPS rangers responded to the call and recovered the remains. 

They contacted the Clark County Medical Examiner to analyze the bones, but the cause of death has yet to be determined and at the time there is "no evidence to suggest foul play," police officers told KTNV Las Vegas (opens in new tab).

Related: Drought helped push the Vikings out of Greenland, new study finds

The clothes and footwear found on the decomposed body in the barrel suggested that the person died "sometime in the mid '70s to early '80s," Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) representatives said in a statement (opens in new tab)

"We believe this is a homicide as a result of a gunshot wound," said LVMPD Homicide Section Lt. Ray Spencer. The victim's identity is unknown, but such information "will be released by the Clark County Coroner's Office when it becomes available," LVMPD representatives said. 

Two sisters found the second set of remains — a human jawbone with attached teeth — on an exposed sandbar while they were paddle-boarding on the lake, ABC News reported (opens in new tab).

Lake Mead provides water for more than 40 million people across seven states and into northern Mexico; it is formed by the Hoover Dam and fed by the Colorado River, and it lies about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Las Vegas, according to the NPS (opens in new tab). At maximum capacity, Lake Mead holds 9.3 trillion gallons (36 trillion liters) of water, according to NASA Earth Observatory (opens in new tab) (NEO). But the last time the reservoir was anywhere near full capacity was in 1999, and water levels have been dropping steadily ever since. Warming temperatures fueled by climate change are worsening persistent drought conditions that may be the region's worst dry spell in more than 1,000 years, NEO reported.

In August 2020, Lake Mead's waters reached only about 35% percent of its capacity. On May 9 of this year, Lake Mead's water level measured about 1,052 feet (321 meters) above sea level — roughly 162 feet (49 m) lower than in 2000, and the lowest level on record since the 1930s, CNN reported. 

And with no end in sight for the punishing regional drought, more of the reservoir's long-hidden and grisly secrets may reappear from the depths, said former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

"There's no telling what we'll find in Lake Mead," Goodman told the Navajo-Hopi Observer (opens in new tab). "It's not a bad place to dump a body."

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Senior Writer

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.