An ancient underwater forest found south of Alabama’s Gulf Shores in the Gulf of Mexico could provide a time capsule to a pre-human era on Earth. Dating back to the Ice Age more than 60,000 years ago, the forest of cypress trees once breathed carbon dioxide above the water’s surface, like any other. Long ago, sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are now, and the forest is increasingly relevant to researchers considering that our planet is being inundated with sea level rise caused by climate change. NASA satellite data shows that sea levels around the world have consistently risen since 1993 thanks to global warming, and it’s projected to render 760 million people homeless in the future.
Researchers started studying the forest after Ben Raines, a documentary filmmaker and environmental reporter, was given a tip about it from an Alabama dive shop owner. Eventually, the shop owner helped Raines track it down — despite being 60 feet underwater — and then Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University interested in studying the site, got in touch. Together, they partnered on a project, which is detailed at length in Raines’ documentary called The Underwater Forest.
Scientists think it’s the world’s only lasting coastal forest from the Ice Age. Though cypress trees normally decompose over 10,000 years, Delong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University explained on the Reddit AMA that Cypress trees should decompose on a 10,000 year time scale — suggesting that, at this particular site, the cypress has survived much longer thanks to low-oxygen sediments that bar bacteria from decomposing the wood.
In analyzing the site, DeLong’s team of dendrochronologists (specialists in tree-ring dating), geologists and paleontologists is collecting rare information on Ice Age-era climate, rainfall, insects and plants, building new insights into what Earth looked like before humans inhabited it.
In sharing their story, the team remains cagey on one crucial detail: the precise location coordinates of the site.
To protect the forest remnants, the team generally follows scuba diving procedures used in the world’s precious but fragile coral reefs, avoids disturbing the floor of the site, and uses only noninvasive scientific instruments that move above the seafloor to map the area, DeLong and Raines explained on Reddit.