At an altitude of 4,780 feet, Whitewater, Colorado, just south of Grand Junction, is sunny for about 70 percent of the year. And it’s dry — so dry, you start to feel your lips chap after just a few hours outside.
This semi-arid climate is key for Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, or FIRS for short. Here, forensic scientists learn what happens to human bodies by watching them decay in real time.
FIRS is one of a handful of active facilities receiving human body donations and observing them in the outdoor environment to study decomposition. Since its first human donation in 2013, researchers have trained students, worked with law enforcement, coroners, and forensic scientists, and conducted their own research.
To date, FIRS has received 81 donations of human bodies, skeletons, or cremated remains to study. The team has performed 33 skeletal preparations for bodies that went through the decomposition process at the Whitewater site.
"The work that we do directly applies to what is happening out there in the world, so if somebody finds a body you don’t know what happened or when it happened," says Alex Smith, a researcher who moved to Colorado from Portland just to work at FIRS. "Because we’re studying these processes, we can get information to people to give them closure to figure out the story behind what happened and just kind of complete the picture and provide more understanding."