ZomBay Critical Mass
August 13, 2008 5:51 PM   Subscribe

AquaticNecromancyFilter: Combined, the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley employ about 3500 uniformed police officers. Do they outnumber the army that could be raised by dark magic from the floor of the San Francisco Bay? Approximately how many entire sets of human skeletal remains are there in that body of water, considering disasters, shipwrecks, bridge jumpers, tidal movement of sediment, etc.?

Yes, I'm sure a reanimated skeleton warrior with a missing digit or patella could probably still serve well in the zombie army, but I'm going for an approximate head count, here, so that the skeletons can mix and match parts to create as many complete horrors from the deep as possible.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
How far back do you want to go? Do you count potential Native Americans starting at about 11,000 years ago?

I have to say, this could be the greatest AskMe question ever
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:03 PM on August 13, 2008

Cool Papa Bell: it's "entire sets of human skeletal remains," so deaths from that far back should be included, but weighted for the likelihood that they've decayed or been washed out of the vicinity. I guess we should define what level of decay constitutes "gone" - maybe no intact pieces remaining with a volume of more than 70% of the original volume of the bone?
posted by contraption at 6:10 PM on August 13, 2008

I think recently, there are many more ashes (thank to the Neptune Society) than bodies, and I don't think recent settlers would have thrown bodies in the water when Colma was so close at hand, because that cemetery area dates to the 19th century.

But you do have suicides from the GG Bridge and other locations, where the police could not find the body or it was never looked for. I would think the total number is perhaps 5,000. But I wonder who would outfit the skeleton armies, I don't recall a lot of people jumping to their deaths or going down to Davy Jones' locker with a sword and a shield these days.
posted by parmanparman at 6:13 PM on August 13, 2008

The thing I guess would be an issue with the dark arts is that with reanimation and all, in a lot of places in the Bay Area, cemetery spaces are a premium and I think that there are places where they bury one coffin on top of another or remove the coffins ten to fifteen years later and cremate the remains.

Wouldn't you want to look at Potter's Fields, like at San Quentin or at the Presidio, Angel's Island, etc?
posted by parmanparman at 6:18 PM on August 13, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - the ONLY way this question is not going to get removed is if the thread doesn't turn into HURF DURF ZOMBIE BAY chatter. Your choice.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:21 PM on August 13, 2008

For a data point, divers on the Mary Rose (sunk 1545) had to work amongst human remains. It seems conceivable to me that European-era shipwreck victims in the Bay, even from hundreds of years ago, would still be there.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:27 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here is a discussion about effects of salt water on bones:

In the salt water where the Titanic is, over time there would be slow chemical reactions by which the calcium would leave the bones and so the structure of the bones would gradually dissolve into the surrounding water. What's happened with the Titanic, given the length of time it was under water before being discovered -- somewhere around seventy-five years -- no bones, no bodies have been found. That's because they've essentially dissolved away as a result of chemical reactions, although very slowly because of the cold temperature.

SF Bay is significantly more shallow, but also has a higher temperature which might create conditions for faster bone decomposition.
posted by parmanparman at 6:33 PM on August 13, 2008

and then there is the issue, which I just remembered about the size of the bay having gotten smaller in the last 200 years. Many bodies might be under feet of infill. i will look for a graphic and post it.
posted by parmanparman at 6:45 PM on August 13, 2008

Ok, I have to ask this.

Watching Law & Order (yeah, I know, the most scientifically accurate shot show ever...), they're always finding the bodies decaying.

I know this question is about skeletons, so some flesh and muscle rotting is fine. But I would assume that skeletal remains would decay at some point. So going back to the start of time wouldn't really apply.

Now, I have no idea at what point a skeleton would be so broken down that it would be basically unusable.
posted by theichibun at 6:48 PM on August 13, 2008

Do you only include bodies east of the Golden Gate? Or can they come from around San Francisco, but not exactly in the bay - like the Farallon Islands? Because there's a fair number of shipwrecks toward that area. The California Shipwreck Database shows 140 wrecks in San Francisco County.
posted by milkrate at 6:53 PM on August 13, 2008

Apparently the Fort Point area is unique due to the amount of tidal activity that takes place. There is a significant amount of churn:
(Easy Version)

Intriguingly, water measurements at Fort Point form the longest continuous sea-level record for any site on the west coast of North America, so there is data galore:

(Data overload)

With water temperatures averaging 55 degrees, and given the tempestuous nature of the area and the fact that it is 330 feet at it's deepest I would put the number significantly lower than 5,000.

My jellybean guess: 880.
posted by jeremias at 7:07 PM on August 13, 2008

If this is limited only to the actual bay, the number will be relatively low. As described above, bone would disolve relatively quickly, and unless your skeletons are held together by magical bonds, all the connective tissue would be crab food very very quick.

However, if you expand your unholy net to the land, the city of Colma is the single largest concentration of corpses in North America, with a minimum of some 1.5million undead warriors awaiting their dark master. That should be plenty to overwhelm the local authorites, the CA National Guard and several battalions of US regulars.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:15 PM on August 13, 2008

Yeah I'm going to have to agree with T.D.
Figure you can't go back very far at all, based on parman's Titanic quote. If bodies dissolve completely in 75 years, what can you actually count on? 30 years? Maybe 50? I mean, for them to make functional zombies, that is. And then how many of those remains have already been spread around the floor of the bay and aren't about to get up and start serving their dark lord?

I'm thinking you'd be lucky to get 200.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2008

Don't discount the massive brigade that will emerge from both ancient and modern burial grounds along the shores of SF Bay.

Coastanoan recruits--culled from over 50 tribes dating back at least 2000 years--may number in the hundreds of thousands. Archeologists claim that "..due to rises in sea levels, bayshore sites may extend below present sea level; and marshes, shellfish beds and even human remains lie buried in relation to former shorelines." [source]. Undead barracks extend onshore, too, in the thousands of acres of mudflats and marshes that were filled in during the 19th century. In fact, prehistoric mounts containing burials with artifacts and middens have been found on Hunters Point, adjacent to Candlestick Park (game delay!). Coastanoan spiritual practices mixed witchcraft and and a strong belief in magic, which can only mean one thing--kickass spell-invoking skills.

As others mentioned, the greatest show of force will emerge from the great necropolis of Colma, aka "The City of Souls." More than 26 cemetery-barracks house more than 1.5 million baddies, led by Wyatt Earp and Joe DiMaggio, unionized by Willam Randolph Hearst, and rallied to march to the ends of the earth by jazz bandleader Turk Murphy--all current residents. Bonus: The pet cemetery will unleash a regiment (de)composed of more than 13,000 pissed-off undead dogs, cats, rabbits, and a few cheetahs.
posted by prinado at 8:00 PM on August 13, 2008 [8 favorites]

okay, i think there are a couple of factors that need to be considered for this estimate.

the first is how strong the necromancy is. some agent powerful enough to draw the undead from the expanses of sf bay would have to be pretty powerful. because of this power, they should be able to retrieve many of the lost bodies, including many that have been scattered in the sediment. i'm assuming that the magic is strong enough to retrieve all bodies from sf's modern history,from about 1830 or so.

the second is who these zombies are. i'm too lazy to do much research, but i did come across one maritime disaster in the 1890's that had 97 drownings. there are undoutaly more maritime accidents, swimmers drowning and whatnot to total say 700 or so accidental deaths in this timeframe.

sf has a pretty shady history in the late 1800's. Crime was rampant, especially along the waterfront. overall, i'd say there would be about 2000 of these. and they're gonna be pissed off and out for revenge. it could even be possible that the waterfront gangs were simply a recruiting tool for future zombies, but i digress.

the occasional suicides and botched escapes from alcatrez, maybe another 300.

so my number is 3000, give or take a few fishermen just outside of the bay that might wander in late.
posted by lester at 8:34 PM on August 13, 2008

Given the nature of the threat, completely alien to human experience and expectations, there is no reason to assume all of the cops, or only the cops, would fight the skeletons. Being a skeleton isn't against the law.

I'd say assign a point value (say 10 points) to each police officer who's done basic training and is willing to fight, and scale up for specifically useful training, experience, high morale vs skeletons, being within 50 yards of a leader, and so on, and scale down for fear, age, unfit physical condition, inexperience, and so on. Then pick an appropriate value for an unarmed but entire skeleton, and scale them down to represent deterioration and up to represent better armaments. Then consider presence of necromancers, skeletal warmages, bone guardians, deathcart trebuchets, and so on.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:37 PM on August 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

This is a great question! One thing to remember is that there were many people who died in the bay and washed up on shore (like my grandfather). So that might lower the number of actually zombies, but you could still probably have some gnarly ghosts.
posted by chana meira at 9:44 PM on August 13, 2008

Decomposition in aqueous environments is very open to further research. Rates of decay depend on multiple factors of the environment including: chemical composition of fluid; hydraulic pressure; disarticulation due to currents or movement; impact of flora and fauna; rate of burial impacting oxygen environments; temperature; alkalinity of water to name a few factors.

The remains of the Olduvai Gorge were found in sediment layers so bones can survive for several hundred thousand years given the right circumstances beginning in fresh water. So let us assume the following:

1) the Bay has the right alkaline environment to allow for long term decomposition;

2) that a certain % of the dearly departed were rapidly submerged and did not suffer the pain of the tides and other cruel things and were in a closed environment e.g., sailors in a ship that sank swiftly and allowed the corpse to be in proximity;

3) that a low % fossilization has occurred with the remains of those unlucky maritime souls;

4) that there is a low % of fossilization of those dearly departed who were interred near the changing shores of bay, estuaries and flash flood

From the shipwreck database you have 140 wrecks from tiny yachts to full blown 3 masted ships. Taking a quick count less than 50 were storm wrecked, missing or exploded. Let us say crews of 100 per ship. Which leaves us with 5000 potential subjects. Fossilization happens for 1% (could not find an estimate number for % of life on earth found in fossils) which throws us to 50 fossilized mariners from the shipwreck database. Unless we get some very concrete numbers of how many fatalities in total this is a very rough speculation.

The best course for the dark lord is to revive Colma as mentioned up thread. The act and art of bodily preservation greatly increases the chances of those 1.5 million corpses having a higher rate of skeletal return. Even at the most optimistic of several hundred thousand fatalities in the Bay and assorted burials near changing shoreline the rate of fossilization, decomp in aqueous environments and shall we say, quality issues, the dark lord should consider a bigger tent approach in overwhelming the law enforcement of the Bay Area.

The best source of rates of decomposition in aqueous environments was from Advances in Forensic Taphonomy which, has a complete chapter on body decomp with tables in aqueous environments. I am sure that the real experts in this area will come with fresher research.

Necromancy is not my area of study. However a quick analysis shows:
  • The dark lord wishes to acquire the Bay Area
  • The dark lord needs to overwhelm law enforcement and government forces
  • Dark lord needs to take over infrastructure
  • Dark arts and powers are a valuable resource and require a great deal of effort to accumulate more so than monetary gains, as manifested in the need to perform many tedious, blood soaked rituals for grimoires and other accoutrements
My suggestion is to:
  • acquire vast capital resources
  • have a plan to offset the potential nuclear strike being called in with a stealth take over of the Bay Area
  • hire independent contractors and administrators to effect a regime change
  • terrorize the populace with contractors and a FEW undead
  • terrorize contractors with undead associates
  • have a mixed kingdom of dead, undead and living -- this is a cycle that keeps producing more staff and revenue
  • accumulate political, mercantile and military capital in preparation for expansion
Again, I am neither a necromancer nor advise any.
posted by jadepearl at 10:58 PM on August 13, 2008 [23 favorites]

If Wiki is a reliable guide hey, I did say "if", then between 1937 and 2005 the number of suicides off the GG Bridge "exceeded 1,200..., and new suicides were averaging one every two weeks.", so let's say 1300 today. But they go on to say "There were 34 bridge jump suicides in 2006 whose bodies were recovered, in addition to four jumps which were witnessed but whose bodies were never recovered...", which sounds like about 90% of the time a body is recovered. That leaves you with maybe 150 still in the bay from suicides. That number would be further reduced by time, tidal action, and sea creatures.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:12 AM on August 14, 2008

Bodies decomposing in water have a strong tendency to float. So any deaths inside the Golden Gate in the last 100 years would need to be trapped to remain whole and unfound. This limits your supply of recent era zombies to those trapped in vessels or who were otherwise held in place strongly.

An excellent source of Bay Area zombies, from complete skeletons, would be Colma.

Also, try Craigslist.
posted by lothar at 8:57 AM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

The enterprising necromancer will easily be able to obtain human remains by manufacturing them from their natural source: the accursed, hated living. If he or she is willing to venture briefly onto land, such a dark lord could raise a small squad of revenants from the Mission Dolores graveyard; such a squad could easily infiltrate one of the many ferries which cross the bay daily and send a boatload of hapless tourists and commuters to a watery grave.

This method will be more convenient for the modern, urban necromancer, who will not need to venture all the way south to Colma in order to raise a ravenous army of the dead. In addition, he or she will be spared the humiliation of bridge-and-tunnel zombies. And remaining in the city, but near the water's edge, a quick trip to the Presidio could yield an army of fearsome undead mice, perfect for sneaking onto watercraft.

At any given moment there are a number of ferries out on the bay at once, and each is capable of carrying several hundred mortals, so a few well-timed simultaneous attacks would be capable of yielding at least a thousand units of fresh matériel; such attacks could likely be repeated several times before the foolish fleshlings caught on and suspended ferry service.

The newly-undead zombies which then clamber from the inky depths will be nice and fleshy, which should aid them both in terrifying the living and withstanding bullet fire. Between this sort of nautical warfare and a few judicious bridge-sabotaging incidents, the necromancer should be capable of getting more than enough bodies underwater to overwhelm the pitiful police forces and crush the hope out of the local populace.
posted by whir at 4:08 PM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

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