Rates of Ruin

Ruins factor prominently in tales of adventure – they are exotic locations that tell a story of fate and inevitability – they have elements of familiarity, failure, and abandonment. The mood is set by such a setting. But modern world-builders have little experience with ruination outside of the occasional un-mowed lawn, urban blight, ramshackle shed, or museum visit. The main question is: how fast does decay happen?


When one abandons a place, one sets in motion a series of events that were kept at bay merely by the presence of people. And while these patterns are predictable, keep in mind that many factors influence world-withering – temperature, humidity, exposure, weather conditions, soil conditions, preservation methods, animal activity, natural disasters, and re-occupation can all change the formula significantly. And at the end of the day, any fictional ruin must satisfy the needs of the plot in which it has been placed. After all, we want those ancient traps to still pose a threat to our treasure-hunting tomb-raiders.

What follows is a list of estimated decomposition rates based on landfill studies and materials research. These are items that are exposed to their environment – things that are sealed away from insects, air, moisture, and other de-composers (like within the thick walls of a sealed tomb or a futuristic nuclear bunker) will probably last longer, but nothing is eternal.


  • A sheen of mold may form on damp food surfaces
  • Raw, uncured meats at room temperature develop bacteria, weep fluids, and start spoiling
  • Small flies seek out dead meat to feed and lay eggs
  • Dead bodies appear relatively unchanged
  • Modern electrical/plumbing/waste-management systems cease to function but may have short-term, automatic backups


  • Mold spreads to many food sources
  • Bread-products that have not molded go stale
  • Uncured meats rot badly and attract flies
  • Insects seek out anything edible and maggots and other larvae feast and grow
  • Decaying materials begin to stink
  • Corpses start to visibly rot, leak, smell, and attract scavengers if left in the open.
  • Surface liquids exposed to the air evaporate
  • Electrical/plumbing/waste-management backup systems fail


  • Rotten fruit juices ferment into alcohol
  • Hard-skinned fruits and vegetables begin to succumb to rot
  • Flies swarm wherever food used to be
  • Animal life re-occupies areas without people
  • Decayed materials reek to the point of repulsion
  • Corpses collapse in on themselves and turn black.
  • Paper products exposed to the elements break down
  • Cryogenically frozen materials lose all their liquid nitrogen due to boil-off and start to naturally decay
  • Water diversion projects like drainage ditches and storm sewers begin to clog
  • Clean water pools stagnate without maintenance and insects and animals occupy them


  • At least one major weather event has likely struck the area and no repairs are made
  • Lightning has most likely struck every very tall building at least once
  • Plant material composts down into a soil-like material
  • Smells of decomposition have largely vanished
  • Corpses and carcasses have dried out and been ravaged by scavengers, worms, or beetles, leaving mostly skin, tendons, and bones
  • Threads have broken down and natural-fiber ropes begin to fray
  • Canvas wears away
  • Cardboard exposed to moisture disintegrates
  • Painted surfaces fade and wear down, exposing whatever material is beneath
  • Rust covers all unprotected metals that are susceptible
  • Roof leaks allow water to penetrate structures
  • Untended ships sink slowly
  • Wildlife and plant-life reclaims tended and farmed areas


  • M.R.E.’s (Meals Ready to Eat) begin to expire
  • Wool clothing falls apart
  • Sunlight exposure bleaches ink until it is unreadable
  • Plywood and other thin, untreated wood rots if exposed
  • Weeds overgrow roads and lower levels of structures
  • Small trees grow at the base of buildings, breaking through their foundations
  • Wood-eating insects ravage timber structures
  • Cracks form in asphalt, stone, and concrete surfaces
  • Low-orbit satellites and space stations lose altitude and crash


  • At least one natural disaster has likely struck the area with no repairs
  • Most sealed/preserved foodstuffs remain recognizable but are inedible
  • Painted wood fades and rots away, as does lumber
  • Most glass windows have cracked or broken
  • Flood control projects like dams and aqueducts have likely failed by some degree


  • Bodies have decayed into skeletons unless perfectly-preserved
  • Leather products deteriorate into uselessness
  • Rust pits the surface of metal items and structures
  • New ecosystems are established inside large structures that remain


  • Wooden structures collapse, especially with the help of storms
  • Tree roots penetrate stone and concrete structures and tear them open


  • At least one mega-disaster has likely occurred, with no chance of repair
  • Forests and jungles completely engulf the remnants of civilization, where they can
  • Thin-walled plastic containers break down
  • Brick and concrete building start crumbling
  • Steel cables corrode and snap, dropping suspension bridges and similar structures
  • Stainless steel loses its oxide layer and begins to rust
  • Batteries corrode completely


  • Thin-walled aluminum cans corrode
  • Artwork fades without restoration or protection
  • Modern skyscrapers begin to collapse


  • Plastic bags, cords, and plastic-lined cloth products like diapers break down
  • Nylon clothing falls apart
  • Thick-walled aluminum cans corrode
  • Most buildings have at least partially collapsed
  • Metallic statuary falls apart
  • Brick and stone structures remain but are worn by the elements


  • Well-built stone structures may still survive, but will show serious deterioration

10,000 YEARS

  • The last of the stone carvings finally weather away


  • Changing climates and disasters have buried, sunken, or raised up entire ruined regions
  • Fossilized remnants may remain of once-living things
  • Glass bottles disintegrate
  • Styrofoam decays

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