Buried under a layer of mud several miles off the Alabama coast lies an ancient cypress forest frozen in time.
Dating back long before humans are believed to have stepped onto the continent, when woolly mammoths and other giant beasts dominated the region, the site sat undisturbed for eons until 2004.
Scientists believe that when Hurricane Ivan brought near-record-setting waves as it thundered through the Gulf of Mexico, the Category 5 storm also scoured the ocean floor and lifted a layer of sand that long encapsulated the paleolithic forest.
Its discovery in the past decade has researchers excited.
Because the material is so well-preserved, it could unlock clues about the region’s climate and life and could have future implications for parts of Louisiana and the gulf coast facing problems with sea-level change and subsidence.
LSU paleoclimatologist Kristine DeLong first became aware of the hidden forest nearly a decade ago, almost by happenstance. A scuba diving shop she followed on Facebook shared an Alabama journalist’s post asking if any researchers were interested in coming to the underwater site he found with tree stumps sticking out of the seafloor.
That got her thinking, and calculating.
At about 60 feet underwater, the global sea-level curves would date the site at about 10,000 to 12,000 years old. But after a team of scuba diving researchers went below to take core samples and even stumps buried in the mud, they realized the material was far older.
They couldn’t even radiocarbon-date the samples because that procedure can only measure up to 50,000 years. Scientists estimate the age of the forest is somewhere between 45,000 and 70,000 years old.
“This is not what you’d expect to find in the ocean,” DeLong said during an interview at her office after unwrapping core samples she pulled from the site 60 feet underwater. “This is very similar to what you’d find if you went out into the Atchafalaya Basin.”
DeLong and other researchers last month published an overview of their findings in the journal BOREAS. But they still have questions — so many questions.
A time capsule
The samples researchers collected over the years contained pollen and seeds. One of Delong’s students found a mite. And the stumps researchers pulled from the ocean even smell like fresh-cut wood because they had been so well preserved under the mud.
Among many objectives for the project, researchers are trying to pinpoint how expansive the forest was, how far the coastline extended beyond its current border and what may have caused the gulf to swallow up the forests.
Researchers have a few hypotheses on what may have caused the forest to become buried. One idea is that sea levels rose quickly rose and submerged the area. Another possibility: that 2-mile-thick ice sheets in the north melted and caused a sudden rush of water down the Mississippi River that buried the forest in sediment.
Under the mud, the trees in many ways were encapsulated and spared from decomposing because of low or no oxygen. Modern Cypress is also highly resilient to water and bugs, which appears to be the case for its primitive ancestor as well.
Because of the wood’s high material value and protected status after generations of being harvested from public lands, researchers have been pushing to protect the underwater forest.
A bill in Congress would designate an area 10 miles south of Gulf Shores as a national marine sanctuary and bar people from harvesting the wood for commercial use. Delong said that would give scientists peace of mind that the site won’t be disturbed as they continue their work in the area.
“We probably have another 10 years we can keep doing research on this,” DeLong said. “As a scientist, this is kind of like that dream project.”