July 8th, 2013 by Michael Ricciardi
Some fifty thousand years ago, a forest comprised of Bald Cypress trees was buried under massive amounts of ocean sediment that also locked out dissolved oxygen present in the water — effectively preserving (and hiding) the primordial forest forever.
Well, that is until Hurricane Katrina’s mighty storm surges (it is believed) disturbed the underwater burial site, and, most recently, a team of scuba divers, acting on a tip from a local fisherman, rediscovered it.
Spanning an area of just 0.5 miles (0.8 km), the underwater forest sits approximately 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface and “several miles ” off the Alabama coast line in the gulf of Mexico. At least, that is the current estimate of its size, based upon the exposed area; future measurements may expand upon this estimate.
According to diver Ben Raines — one of the first divers to explore the submarine forest and the executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve — many of the trees are so well-preserved that they still emit the smell of fresh Cypress sap when cut.
But study of this startling find is a race against time; researchers and explorers have only a short time before wood-boring marine animals (e.g., bore worms) and micro-organisms begin feasting on and decomposing the the submerged Cypress forest.
How the Forest was Found
The site of the submerged forest was actually discovered by a local fisherman only a year after Hurricane Katrina swept through the region. The site — teeming with fish and wildlife — prompted the fisherman to dive down and explore the area. it was then that the fisherman discovered the eerily beautiful, submarine Cypress forest.
The fisherman’s discovery was not much more than a credible rumor at the time. Through a mutual contact, Raines got in touch with the fisherman, who confirmed the find. However, the fisherman refused to reveal its exact location due to mistrust of scuba divers (who have sometimes raided underwater archeological sites and stolen artifacts). After swearing Raines to secrecy, the fisherman finally revealed the location.
And it was not until late last years that Raines conducted his own exploratory dive and re-discovered the “Cypress swamp” still in pristine condition. The swamp forest had become a novel form of reef — attracting large numbers of fish and other sea creatures (like crustaceans) who had burrowed between the exposed roots of the up-lifted tree stumps.
Swimming amongst the fallen logs and remnants of this ancient forest (many of whose trees were quite massive), Raines described the experience as being in a “fairy world.”
To Study an Underwater Forest
Raines then teamed up with Grant Harley, a dendrochronologist (a scientist that measures tree rings) at the University of Southern Mississippi, and, Kristine DeLong, a geographer at Louisiana State University, to analyze tree samples and create a sonar map of the forest (see top image).
Isotope analysis of the carbon in the tree samples produced dates of about 52,000 years.
Analysis of the tree rings is still underway but it is hoped that they will reveal important data about the climate in this region; the carbon dating (circa 52,000 years ago) coincides with a glacial period known as the Wisconsin Glacial period. During this period, sea levels were much lower than present times.
Importantly, due to the long-lived Cypress trees (some an live to over a thousand years), the researchers believed that some of larger diameter tree (upwards of two meters in diameter) will contain thousands of rings, which translates into thousands of years of prehistoric climate data.
The team will need more time to collect and analyze data — and explore the site more thoroughly — before attempting to published the results. But, it’s a race against time; they estimate that they have maybe two years, at best, before marine organisms invade the site too deeply and alter the carbon isotope ratios, tainting the tree samples and rendering their dates unreliable.
Some source material for this post came from the Live Science/Yahoo News article: ‘Primeval Underwater Forest Discovered in Gulf of Mexico’ by Tia Ghose (NatureEnvironment).
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