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article imageAlabama's ancient underwater cypress forest giving up its secrets

By Karen Graham     Jul 16, 2017 in Science
Off the coast of Alabama, in the Gulf of Mexico, lies a relic from our planet's past. Submerged under 60 feet of water is an ancient cypress forest, about 60,000 years-old, preserved in place — the trees still rooted in the dirt from millennia ago.
The discovery of the underwater forest actually started out as a rumor about a "honey hole" somewhere off the coast of Alabama where the red snapper was so prolific, they nearly jumped into a fisherman's boat. However, by the time Ben Raines - an environmental reporter for the Mobile Press Register, got wind of the rumor in 2012, it had evolved.
What Raines found on the floor of the Gulf were the remains of a massive cypress forest that had been growing during a long ago previous Ice Age, when the coastal shoreline was much further South than it is now. Rising sea levels buried the forest in mud for millennia, until Category 5 Hurricane Ivan unearthed the ancient site in 2004.
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The remains of the cypress forest were discovered by chance by a group of divers who shared the site with Raines. And this information led to Raines getting his friend to take him to the location, about 10 miles off the Alabama coast, so he could see it for himself. "As soon as I got down there, I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is an ancient place. We've got to get some scientists here,'" said Raines.
“It was like entering a fairy world,” he told The Washington Post, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News. “You get down there, and there are these cypress trees, and there are logs lying on the bottom, and you can touch them and peel the bark off. It was an otherworldly experience where you knew you were in this ancient place."
How ancient is the cypress forest?
Raines first documented the forest over a period of time, posting videos and articles about the prehistoric site. One of the posts Raines wrote caught the attention of LSU geological oceanographer, Dr. Kristine DeLong. "Just like a marine archaeologist finds a wooden ship wreck, that's a big deal because you just don't expect to find it. It only happens in very certain conditions," said DeLong.
DeLong, along with researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi began dating chunks of the wood. At first, Delong and Raines had estimated the forest might be about 10,000 years-old. However, radiocarbon dating of the wood at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California showed they were way off.
"When we started dating the wood, my colleague, very good at what he does with radiocarbon dating, he tells me it's radio carbon dead. I'm like, 'What do you mean,'" asked DeLong. "He's like, 'It's so old, I can't date it." At this point, the researchers realized they had stumbled onto something quite extraordinary. The forest was actually five or six times older than they had first thought.
Time traveling below the waters of the Gulf
The period of time from the last great Ice Age, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago has been well studied. A few trees, perhaps about 1,000 years old have been found off the coast of England and a few other locations, but they grew in a world we have studied and understand.
But Alabama's ancient forest, based on sediment core samples taken around the site, dates it to 50,000 to 60,000 years old, and this is exciting because scientists have been given a unique opportunity to closely study wood and the secrets still buried within the rings of the trees, including studying the growth patterns, seeds, and microfossils.
“These trees were basically entombed or hermetically sealed,” Raines said. “They have nine feet of sediment over them, and oxygen is locked out. It’s similar to peat bogs in Ireland, where scientists have found human bodies that were preserved by these unique environmental conditions.” He added, “This is the same phenomenon, but with trees."
Grant Harley, a dendrochronologist who has analyzed wood collected from the site, says, “When we ran the wood samples through the band saw, you could smell the resin just like you were cutting into a fresh piece of wood today. Same thing with when we sanded them down. They smelled fresh. Very well preserved."
Dr. DeLong says the underwater forest in Alabama reminds her of the forest in Louisiana s Atchafalay...
Dr. DeLong says the underwater forest in Alabama reminds her of the forest in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin, shown here.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library
Delong says the forest that stood looks very similar to those found in the Atchafalaya Basin, located in south-central Louisiana. The basin is best known for its cypress-tupelo swamps, at 260,000 acres (110,000 hectares), this block of forest represents the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress in the United States.
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But Delong points out that the Alabama forest has a variety of tree species that indicate the climate was much cooler when they were growing. She adds that there is "evidence these trees were stressed, and died around the same time, possibly as the result of rising sea levels."
"We're seeing that similar response with modern trees. As sea levels come up, bald cypress does not like salt water, so it's going to start to reduce its growth and eventually die,” said DeLong. She, along with many other scientists, believes that we will be able to understand what's happening now by looking at what happened then.
“It’s pretty rapid change geologically speaking,” Martin Becker, a paleontologist from New Jersey’s William Paterson University who has visited the site, told “We’re looking at 60 feet of seawater where a forest used to be . . . I’m looking at a lot of development, of people’s shore homes and condominiums, etc., you know. The forest is predicting the future, and maybe a pretty unpleasant one.”
Ongoing investigation and preservation of the ancient forest
The importance of the prehistoric cypress forest cannot be underestimated, nor can it be exploited in any way. This is why the exact coordinates of its location will not be published at this time, says Raines. He is also spearheading a drive to make the site a protected marine sanctuary, and that will need public support.
Until then, the public can experience the forest in all its ancient glory through a documentary written and directed by Raines. Called "The Underwater Forest," it was co-produced by This is Alabama.
More about alabama coast, Sea level rise, cypress forest, 60000 years old, Ice age
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