A team of scuba divers say they have discovered an ancient underwater Bald Cypress forest about 52,000 years old off the coast of Alabama.
Ben Raines, executive director of the nonprofit organization Weeks Bay Foundation, which "provides assistance and support to the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve's goals and programs," discovered the Bald Cypress forest covering an area of about 0.5 square miles, preserved perfectly for over 50,000 years about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, in an oxygen-free environment, under layers of ocean sediments, several miles off the coast of Mobile, Alabama.
Raines described the forest as being so well preserved that the trees still smell of fresh Cypress sap. However, he warns that study and exploration of the underwater landscape must commence urgently because wood-burrowing marine mammals could destroy it in a few years.
Live Science reports that Raines learned about the site from a friend who owns a dive shop. The dive shop owner told Raines that a local fisherman suspected that something significant was hidden below when he noticed the site teeming with marine life. The fisherman told the dive shop owner about the site who went down to explore and found a forest of Cypress trees.
The dive shop owner kept the location of the underwater forest secret for many years because he feared that scuba divers would plunder it. But he finally shared the secret with Raines in 2012. Raines went down with his team of divers and discovered a primeval forest preserved perfectly in pristine condition about 60 feet below the Gulf of Mexico, teeming with marine life. The forest, with its massive trees, served as an artificial reef for fish, sea anemones, crustaceans and other marine creatures that were burrowing into the roots.
Raines told Live Science: "Swimming around amid these stumps and logs, you just feel like you're in this fairy world."
He says the the forest was likely uncovered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to IScience Times, the forest was part of an ancient river channel running through the area.
Raines contacted scientists, including Grant Harley at the University of Southern Mississipi, a dendrochronologist who studies tree rings and is able to use the information to estimate the age of trees. He also contacted geographer Kristine DeLong of Louisiana State University.
Intrigued by Raines' account, the scientists agreed to take a look at the site. According to Live Science, they created a sonar map of the site and collected some samples for study. Harley determined from the tree rings and through carbon dating that the forest was about 52,000 years old.
Live Science reports Harley 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 scientists plan to study to the site further and DeLong plans to dive down later in the year.
According to the scientists, the growth rings of the trees could reveal a lot of information about the climate of the region thousands of years back. Of special interest is a period thousands of years ago called the Wisconsin Glacial.
The scientists say there are presently seeking grants to enable them conduct a full exploration and study of the forest. They need assistance urgently because the site could deteriorate in a few years, according to Harley in two years.
Live Science reports he said: "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. It can really make the sample undatable, unusable."
Bald Cypress trees are common in the swamps of southern US and grow up to 120 feet tall. The provide natural barrier and protect the coastline from hurricanes by acting as "Speed bumps." However, extensive logging and draining of the wetlands has removed the natural barrier and exposed cities along the coastline, such as New Orleans, to the full force of hurricane surges.