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Underwater forest discovered off coast of Alabama

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 10th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The world still has a few things left around to surprise us, it seems. Scuba divers have discovered a primeval underwater forest off the coast of Alabama. Dubbed the Bald Cypress forest, the phenomenon was discovered buried under ocean sediments where they were protected in an oxygen-free environment for more than 50,000 years.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Ben Raines, one of the first divers to explore the underwater forest says it was likely uncovered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The forest reportedly contains trees so well-preserved that when they are cut, they smell of fresh Cypress sap.

The stumps of the Cypress trees span an area of at least 0.5 square miles, several miles from the coast of Mobile, Alabama, and sit about 60 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Raines related an anecdote about a friend who owned a dive shop shortly after Hurricane Katrina. The owner confided that a local fisherman had found a site teeming with fish and wildlife and suspected that something big was hidden below. Exploring below, he found a forest of trees and then told Raines about his discovery.

The dive shop owner refused to disclose the location for many years, Raines said.

The owner finally revealed the site's location last year after swearing Raines to secrecy. Raines then did his own dive and discovered a primeval Cypress swamp in pristine condition. The forest had become an artificial reef, attracting fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other underwater life burrowing between the roots of dislodged stumps.

"Swimming around amidst these stumps and logs, you just feel like you're in this fairy world," Raines told TV reporters.

Grant Harley, a dendrochronologist, or someone who studies tree rings at the University of Southern Mississippi was one of the scientists Raines contacted.

Intrigued, Harley joined with geographer Kristine DeLong of Louisiana State University to discover the site's secrets. The team created a sonar map of the area and analyzed two samples Raines took from trees. Because of the forest depth, scuba divers can only stay below for about 40 minutes before coming up.

Carbon isotopes revealed that the trees were about 52,000 years old. The discovery could reveal secrets about the climate of the Gulf of Mexico thousands of years ago, during a period known as the Wisconsin Glacial period, when sea levels were much lower than they are today. Because Bald Cypress trees can live a thousand years, and there are so many of them, the trees could contain thousands of years of climate history for the region, Harley said.

"These stumps are so big, they're upwards of two meters in diameter - the size of trucks," Harley says. "They probably contain thousands of growth rings."

Time is running out, however -- Harley estimates they have just two years.

"The longer this wood sits on the bottom of the ocean, the more marine organisms burrow into the wood, which can create hurdles when we are trying to get radiocarbon dates," Harley said. "It can really make the sample undatable, unusable."

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