Sixty feet under the ocean surface off the coast of Alabama, the remains of an ancient cypress forest have laid undisturbed for nearly 60,000 years.
When the forest was above ground, sea levels were 400 feet lower, a massive ice sheet covered most of Canada and the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico coastline was between 30 and 60 miles further out than it is now.
Early man may have once hunted or gathered food amongst these trees on the southern shore shore before they grew too old, too tall, and too brittle to support their own weight. The fallen trees were covered, as CNN reports, first by sediment and then by the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Thousands of years later, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan threw the Gulf into turmoil. The sediment and mud that once covered the underwater forest was washed away. What remains of the great cypress trees is now once again visible from the surface of the water.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, teams of scientists from Northeastern University and the University of Utah are being funded by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), with the aim of searching out new compounds for medicine and biotechnology in the underwater forest.
“Marine animals and their symbiotic microorganisms that live on and in wood have recently been shown to be a potentially rich source for biomolecules of high biopharmaceutical and biotechnological value,” NOAA reports. “To this end, this research team is exploring the biodiversity and economic potential of the submerged forest off the Alabama coast, which provides an unusually large, biodiverse, and temporally stable wood-associated marine habitat for them to study.”
The scientists are bringing some of the old cypress logs to the surface to study the wood-eating “shipworms” and the bacteria that grow inside them. These “termites of the sea,” as NOAA calls them, can convert wood into animal tissue, a reliable food source for fish, invertebrates, and microorganisms.
In this sense, the underwater forest acts much like a coral reef.
“The underwater forest is another unique Alabama gem with global importance. As the only known site where a coastal ice age forest this old has been preserved in place, we must take action now to protect it,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL).
Environmental journalist Ben Raines began exploring the underwater forest in 2014 after receiving a tip from a friend in the diving community. He later described the experience as “swimming with dinosaurs” in his video article for This is Alabama.
As The Guardian reports, Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University and an experienced SCUBA diver, got in touch with Raines after watching the video. She asked about carbon dating some of the cypress logs in the underwater forest.
The logs turned out to be “radiocarbon dead.”
“Essentially, that means they’re older than 50,000 years,” DeLong said. “We did it three times to make sure.”
For some soggy logs, this was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.
“From a scientific perspective, it’s a goldmine of information that we just don’t have access to anywhere else,” Delong said.
“This is a one of a kind natural wonder, like Yellowstone national park, or the Grand Canyon,” Raines told AL.com. “It should be protected from exploitation and saved for the American public, just like those amazing sites on land.”
Making the underwater forest a national park would keep it open to tourists, fishermen and research groups, but protect the region from logging, peat harvesting and other disruptive activities.
Join the growing number of individuals calling for this ancient forest to be protected. Click the button below to make a difference.Whizzco