Fifty-two thousand years is a long, long time for anything to survive–but that is how old scientists estimate a grove of huge bald cypress trees off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, to be.
The ancient forest was discovered by scuba divers some years ago after being buried for thousands of years under ocean sediment.
Located some 60 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, the forest’s trees are so well-preserved that Ben Raines, executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay Foundation and one of the first divers to explore the site, tells Live Science that they still smell like fresh cypress sap.
While we might assume water would cause wood to rot, wood can actually survive for long periods of time when it is exposed to wetness.
Archaeologists have found the remains of wooden ships dating back to Roman times as well as an intact wooden chest (still guarding its store of ancient medicines) in the Mediterranean, as well as (just earlier this year) discovering wooden writing tablets in the River Walbrook in London. The cypress grove of course predates the Romans.
A local dive shop owner had come upon the forest a year after Hurricane Katrina. A fisherman had told him about a site that was curiously rich with fish and wildlife. While he told Raines about his discovery, he did not reveal its location until 2012 and only “after swearing [Raines] to secrecy,” says Live Science.
On diving to the site, Raines was amazed to see that the dislodged stumps, some of which were the length of trucks, had become a reef for a marvelous array of fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other marine life. Many of the trees had fallen over; after swimming their length, Raines says that “you just feel like you’re in this fairy world.”
But like some magical fantasy world, the primeval cypress forest could soon disappear.
Grant Harley, a University of Southern Mississippi dendrochronologist (someone who studies tree rings), says that the many marine animals burrowing into the cypress trees are causing it to deteriorate and, with no way to stop this happening, scientists are in a race against time to learn as much as they can from the ancient trees.
Bald cypress trees have been known to live for thousands of years and scientists are performing radiocarbon tests to determine their age.
The scientists also hope to study the trees’ growth rings as these can reveal fascinating details about the history of the Gulf of Mexico thousands of years ago and what is called the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, a time when sea levels were much lower than they currently are. They do so knowing that time is running short.
Bringing samples up to the surface of course comes with its own hazards: Waterlogged wood retains its shape so long as it is wet; once exposed to air, the excess water evaporates and the wood shrinks and becomes distorted.
Climate change also poses a danger to such amazing sites. The rising sea levels, increasing rainfall and melting of ice are revealing other ancient sites but also putting them at risk.
Melting ice in the Swiss Alps has revealed artifacts left thousands of years ago by the Romans and other ancient peoples (sandals, leather pants) but, by exposing them to the elements, has also contributed to the artifacts’ destruction.
A higher than average level of precipitation is also causing erosion and literally washing away Peru’s Chan Chan, a nine-mile-square city made of unfired mud brick that was erected some 1,000 years ago.
The warmer, wetter world we are living in could both tell us much more about our shared history and prehistory but may also make it disappear before we have a chance to find it.
Photo from Thinkstock