Scientists study 60,000 year old underwater cypress forest off coast of Alabama

(WAFB) - Sixty feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, miles off the coast of Alabama, there's a window into a wild and ancient world man never knew before.

On the Gulf floor is what's left of a massive cypress forest that grew during an ice age, when the shoreline was much farther south than it is now. The forest was lost to the rising sea and buried in mud for millennia, until the winds and waves of Hurricane Ivan unearthed the prehistoric site in 2004.

The stumps of those cypress trees were discovered by chance by a group of scuba divers who shared the site with journalist, Ben Raines. "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.

Raines began documenting the site with videos and articles that quickly spread around the world. One of his posts 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 explains salt water usually disintegrates wood very quickly. In this case, low oxygen mud was able to preserve the trees over the eons. She was one of the first scientists to examine the site, carefully harvesting samples for testing. Her first goal was to find out exactly how old the cypress trees are. DeLong and Raines both estimate they date back to the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago.

Radio carbon dating revealed they were several millenniums off.

"When we started dating the wood, my colleague, very good at what he does with radio carbon 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.'" Sediment core samples around the site date back more than 40,000 years. DeLong and her colleagues estimate the trees could be anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 years old. Wood that old, preserved without being petrified, is essentially unheard of.

Now, DeLong and other scientists are trying to unlock the secrets still buried within the rings of the trees by studying the growth patterns, seeds, and microfossils. DeLong says the forest that stood during the ice age would have looked very similar to those found in the Atchafalaya Basin. However, the variety of species they have found indicates the climate was much cooler. DeLong says there is also evidence these trees were stressed, and died around the same time, possibly as the result of rising sea levels.

That's a pattern that seems to be repeating today as Louisiana's coastline erodes away.

"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.

DeLong and others believe they can better understand what's happening now by looking at what happened then.

Meanwhile Raines is working to preserve and protect this site from those that want to mine and sell the ancient wood. The coordinates are kept secret and he's spearheading an effort to have the site declared a marine sanctuary, which requires public support. He says a petition will be created soon.

He hopes people will one day be able to dive and fish among the ancient trees, so long as the logs are not disturbed. Until then, the public can experience the site through a documentary Raines created called The Underwater Forest. The documentary was published this month on YouTube.

"It's this magical, secret world. There's not another spot like it on Earth. You very much feel that when you get down there. It's just this mysterious place," said Raines.

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