The remains of an ancient forest of bald cypress trees has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although composed mostly of stumps, there are hundreds of trees in the forest, and they are so well-preserved that they smell like cypress sap. Scientists suspect that the forest was buried in a layer of sediment that protected it in an oxygen-free environment. It is at least 50,000 years old, and was probably unearthed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Located a few miles off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, the forest is roughly a half square mile and sits about 60 feet under the surface. Divers first noticed the area about in 2007, says Ben Raines, executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay Foundation. After learning about the forest, he made it his mission to see it firsthand. (Check out his video below, but be warned: He spears a flounder at the end, which ruins an otherwise magical experience.)
According to Raines, he found out about the forest from a friend who owns a dive shop. The dive shop owner said that a customer had reported an area filled with fish and wildlife. The diver suspected something was below and discovered the ancient forest, which had developed into an artificial reef.
The dive shop owner disclosed the location to Raines last year. Raines 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.”
“Swimming around amidst these stumps and logs, you just feel like you’re in this fairy world,” Raines said.
Raines told scientists about the forest, and the University of Southern Mississipi’s Grant Harley created a research team (along with LSU’s Kristine DeLong) to learn what they could about the swamp. However, the team is working against the clock and marine wildlife.
Harley says they only have about two years to study the site. “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 said. “It can really make the sample undatable, unusable.”
In the meantime, the team has used sonar to map the area and analyzed samples that Raines took from the trees to carbon date them.
The trees growth rings (some of which are massive) could provide clues to the Gulf’s past climate. “Because Bald Cypress trees can live a thousand years, and there are so many of them, the trees could contain thousands of years of climate history for the region,” 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 research team is currently pursuing grants to continue their exploration.