July 11th, 2013 by James Ayre
An underwater forest — more than 52,000 years old — was recently discovered off of the Alabama coast. The primeval Bald Cypress forest was apparently completely covered and protected by ocean sediments in an oxygen-free environment until only very recently — as a result the trees are so incredibly well-preserved that they still smell like fresh Cypress sap when they are cut open, even though they are quite ancient. It’s thought that the forest was likely uncovered by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.
The area where the forest is now located — several miles off of the coast of Mobile, Alabama — was previously well above sea level, sea levels were much lower during the recent ice ages. The tree stumps of this ancient forest now cover an area of somewhere around 0.5 square miles and rest around 60 feet below the surface of the water.
Now that the forest has been exposed to the elements it’ll likely only exist for a few more years — before being completely destroyed by bacteria and other small marine organisms. While the forest was probably once home to some of the many incredible megafauna animals which were once common throughout North American, it’s now home to fish, crustaceans, anemones, etc — quite a change.
Some background on the discovery of the underwater forest, via LiveScience:
Ben Raines was talking with a friend who owned a dive shop about a year after Hurricane Katrina. The dive shop owner confided that a local fisherman had found a site teeming with fish and wildlife and suspected that something big was hidden below. The diver went down to explore and found a forest of trees, then told Raines about his stunning find. But because scuba divers often take artifacts from shipwrecks and other sites, the dive shop owner refused to disclose the location for many years.
In 2012, the owner finally revealed the site’s location after swearing Raines to secrecy. Raines then did his own dive and discovered a primeval Cypress swamp in pristine condition. The forest had become an artificial reef, attracting fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other underwater life burrowing between the roots of dislodged stumps. Some of the trees were truly massive, and many logs had fallen over before being covered by ocean sediment.
Raines then reached out to several scientists to learn more about the forest. One of those scientists was Grant Harley, a dendrochronologist (someone who studies tree rings) at the University of Southern Mississippi. Harley was intrigued, and together with geographer Kristine DeLong of Louisiana State University, set out to discover the site’s secrets.
The research team created a sonar map of the area and analyzed two samples Raines took from trees. DeLong is planning her own dive at the site later this year. Because of the forest depth, scuba divers can only stay below for about 40 minutes before coming up.
The carbon isotope analysis of the samples showed that the trees which were sampled were somewhere around 52,000 years old — and may potentially contain valuable information on the climate of the region during that time period. The period of time that they date to is known as the Wisconsin Glacial period — a time period when the world’s sea levels were much lower, and much of the world was considerably colder.
“Swimming around amidst these stumps and logs, you just feel like you’re in this fairy world,” Raines said. “These stumps are so big, they’re upwards of two meters in diameter — the size of trucks. They probably contain thousands of growth rings.”
The research team is currently looking for funding to do more research on the primeval underwater forest, and they are running out of time — estimating that there are only about two years left before the wood becomes unusable.
“The longer this wood sits on the bottom of the ocean, the more marine organisms burrow into the wood, which can create hurdles when we are trying to get radiocarbon dates,” Harley stated. “It can really make the sample undatable, unusable.”
There are actually quite a few ‘submerged forests’ — as they are known — throughout the world, in a variety of different environments. Much of the sea area between the British Isles and mainland Europe features such ‘underwater forests’ — that area, known as Doggerland, was mostly land until only very recently, somewhere around 8000 years ago.
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