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Underwater forest? 'Enchanted forest' provides tantalizing hints to past climate.

Underwater forest: An underwater forest discovered in the Gulf of Mexico contains trees that lived for hundreds or maybe thousands of years, and died over 50,000 years ago.

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Fish swim through an ancient forest found 60 feet underwater about 10 miles offshore from Mobile, Ala., in this photo from last August. The underwater forest was apparently buried under a thick layer of sand for eons until it was uncovered by giant waves during Hurricane Katrina.

Ben Raines/AL.com/AP

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Sixty feet underwater, ten miles from shore, divers discovered an underwater forest of cypress trees that had been buried for tens of thousands of years.

While most of the once-majestic trees are gone, sonar data has found between 50 and 100 stumps, as well as an unknown number of logs. The trees are closely related to the modern-day Bald Cypress, says Grant Harley, a tree ring expert at the University of Southern Mississippi. "The growth rings look just like the Bald Cypress growth rings I've looked at hundreds of times," he says.

And there were a lot of growth rings, so close together that Dr. Harley had to use a high-powered microscope to count them. In a sample the size of a coffee cup, he says, he found 424 years of growth rings. Considering that the larger tree stumps were upwards of six feet in diameter, these trees could easily be thousands of years old. "That's much, much older than Bald Cypress growing today," Harley notes. "It's more comparable to redwoods."

The forest itself has been dead at least 50,000 years, say scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California who dated samples from the trees by looking for carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that is found in every living organism but that steadily decays after the organism dies. The scientists had expected to find that the trees were about 12,000 years old – the age of the last big ice age, when sea levels were low – so they were surprised to find that the trees had no carbon-14 at all, which puts them older than 50,000 years.

Another surprise: the wood still seemed fresh. Ben Raines, one of the first scuba divers to explore the site, tweeted a picture showing the sap-rich wood.

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