An old forest of giant trees was discovered lying 60 feet under water, several miles off the coast of Alabama. The tree trunks were so fresh they still oozed sap when cut. Scientists used a dating method called Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Radio-Carbon dating to place the forest’s lifetime at about 50,000 years ago, making it the oldest under water forest that is known to humanity.
The wood, which lies in the Gulf of Mexico, was first discovered by a scuba-dive shop owner named Chas Broughton, more than 12 miles from the shore. Rumors of the location later reached Ben Raines, an environmental reporter for Mobile Press Register. Ben spent some time persuading Broughton to show them the site of the forest before he saw it. Finally, when he got a glimpse of it, Ben told The Washington Post that the experience was like entering a different world. “It was an otherworldly experience,” Raines said, “where you knew you were in this ancient place.” He explained how he found logs of cypress trees lying on the ocean floor. He could peel off their backs like they were just cut down a few years back.
The discovery raised a lot of questions – like how old was the forest? How wasn’t all of it disintegrated? How did it get there? Raines and other researchers from Louisiana State University were determined to answer these questions, so they began dating samples of the wood at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The researchers’ expectation was that the trees would be about 10,000 years old. However, they couldn’t be more wrong. According to Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University, the trees turned out to be five times older than they had estimated. “Suddenly, we realized we had stumbled upon something extraordinary,” DeLong said. The experts agree that there is no other such thing in the world.
Scientists say however much the forest may be currently buried deep under water; it once grew miles inland from the nearest ancient shoreline. They made their case basing on the fact that cypress trees cannot thrive under salt water and the results of a pollen analysis. Researchers drew the conclusion that the forest area must have been a valley once; about 50,000 years back. The valley had wildlife, and swamps and rivers were flowing through it.
The team of scientists also said they believed that the forest would never have been discovered had it not been for Hurricane Ivan, which reached Alabama and Florida’s coast in 2004, causing damage worth billions of dollars. The giant waves, rising 98 feet high, must have scooped about ten feet of sediment thus uncovering the forest.
As to how the trees had failed to rot completely for that long, scientists think the forest must have been preserved by some circumstances: the forest must have been growing in a swampy ecosystem, where the sediment had low oxygen concentration. The absence of oxygen slows down the process of decomposition by bacteria. In a scenario where the floods covered the forest abruptly, the trees would have been preserved in the sediments before they could rot.
Dr. Grant Harley, a Dendrochronologist at the University of Southern Mississippi took an interest in analyzing the samples. He dried a few of them I a fume hood for about a month and a half before running further tests. The reason it took so long to dry them is that wood that has been submerged for that long would have checking and splitting if dried abruptly. Harley reported being amazed by the properties of the dried wood. “When we ran those samples through the band saw,” he said,” you could smell the resin just like you were cutting into a fresh piece.” The wood also leaked sap out of it – 50,000-year-old sticky and fragrant sap. The fluid could be seen clearly under a microscope.
Researchers added that probably the most impressive evidence came from pollen found in the sediment core samples surrounding the trees. After analysis, they concluded that it resembled a coastal forest in present-day Virginia and North Carolina, where the temperature is much lower during winter. This information shows that the woods must have grown in the region at a time when it was freezing, probably an ancient ice age.
The analysis of the sediment core also revealed tree pollen switching to several grass pollens with rising water levels and the shoreline invading more land, killing trees. It is a clue to ancient climate change. Scientists suspect sea levels may have been rising as much as eight feet every 100 years during that period. According to Martin Becker, a paleontologist from Paterson University in New Jersey, the change was quite rapid geologically speaking.
Becker said the existence of the forest buried under water backed up science by providing concrete evidence of climate change affecting sea levels. He fears the forest is predicting future, “and maybe a pretty unpleasant one.” He said.