A treasure hunter says he's going to find Bin Laden's body. Does he have a chance?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 14 2011 5:19 PM

The Hunt for Bin Laden, Part II

How likely are treasure hunters to find Bin Laden's body?

Osama Bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Could Osama Bin Laden's body be found?

Eccentric treasure hunter Bill Warren intends to find the body of Osama Bin Laden in the North Arabian Sea using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle. If he finds the remains, he'll photograph them to confirm Bin Laden's death to the world. Can you find a human body in the ocean using sonar?

Almost certainly not. Active sonar devices bounce sound waves off whatever objects may lie in their path, then generate images based on how long it takes the waves to return. Soft objects like a human body are difficult to see in these sonar-generated pictures, because sound waves don't bounce off of them very well. A body won't look very different from sand on the sea floor. The technique is much more useful on hard objects, like anchors, cannons, or gold bars. More importantly, unless Mr. Warren has insider information about precisely where U.S. forces deposited Bin Laden's body, the Arabian Sea is far too vast to be scanned in a reasonable time frame. Just like the human eye, a sonar device has to get very close to see small objects clearly.

Legitimate treasure hunters start an active search only after months, and often years, of exhaustive research. If they're looking for a specific sunken ship, they pore over navigation records and data on weather and currents. They use computer software to recreate the ship's likely path. Sometimes, instead of tracking a particular vessel, they search along historic shipping routes. UNESCO guesses that there may be 3 million shipwrecks in the world, and some of those boats went down with millions of dollars worth of gold and silver. Mapping the sea floor along major trade routes can be an effective search tactic, but only if you're looking for something the size of a Spanish galleon.

Once a treasure hunter selects a specific area and launches a search boat, the next step is to lower a sonar-equipped device called a towfish toward the bottom. On the first pass, the towfish hovers about 50 yards from the sea floor. At that level, it can scan an area 650 yards across, excepting a 50-yard slice directly beneath the emitter. A human body would be basically undetectable at that distance, perhaps appearing as a ripple in the sand. Even a shipwreck can be tough to discern for an untrained eye. If the towfish reveals something abnormal on the floor, the operator passes it over the same spot, this time within just a few meters of the bottom. Finally, the ship releases a robotic video vessel to get a better look.

Bonus Explainer: If Warren defies all odds and finds Bin Laden's body, will it be recognizable in a photograph? This turns out to be a difficult question. Forensic anthropology research on body decomposition rates has focused more on shallow terrestrial graves and car trunks than seawater, so there isn't much to go on. The little research that has been done suggests the current state of Bin Laden's body depends on where it landed. If it's in an area with few scavengers, low temperatures, and a limited supply of dissolved oxygen, the decomposition process may have barely begun, and the body could be easily recognizable. Generally speaking, these conditions are more likely in deeper parts of the water, where higher pressures also prevent bloat—but that rule isn't iron-clad.

It's equally possible that Bin Laden has already been reduced to bones. Research on pig carcasses dropped to a depth of around 300 feet shows that marine scavengers such as lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and possibly sharks can dismember a carcass within a few days. (If the bag containing Bin Laden's body is well-sealed, it can help deter the smaller scavengers.) Once the large scavengers have started the process, a wider array of animals moves in. The pig research suggests that a dead body can be picked clean in less than a month.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gail Anderson of Simon Fraser University and Sean Fisher of Mel Fisher's Treasures.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:03 PM Kern Your Enthusiasm: The Ubiquity of Gotham
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.