It’s 50,000 to 70,000 years in the past and the coastline of what is now the Gulf of Mexico has receded due to the large sheets of ice that cover landmasses to the north. What is now deep-sea waters is a marshland full of cypress trees.
Years of rising and falling seas threaten this pristine environment in what is now off the shoreline of the southern end of Baldwin County, about 10 miles from Gulf Shores. Most likely, the marsh is covered once and for all by rising Gulf waters, never disturbed again until Hurricane Ivan unleashes some of the biggest waves ever recorded and curious divers make a unique discovery.
That discovery has pushed an effort to save the underwater trees, culminating with outgoing U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, introducing legislation in the House to protect the submerged forest from excavation.
Known as the Alabama Underwater Forest National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, it will give Alabamians the ability to fish, dive and recreate at the site while ensuring none of its invaluable artifacts can be removed or damaged. This designation will also open up further tourism opportunities along our Gulf Coast, Byrne said.
“The underwater forest is another unique Alabama gem with global importance,” Byrne said in a statement. “As the only known site where a coastal Ice Age forest this old has been preserved in place, we must take action now to protect it.”
A year after the historic hurricane, a fisherman who lost a reel in international waters off the coast of Gulf Shores in 2005 contacted Fairhope dive shop owner Chas Broughton about an odd discovery with the fish in the area. When Broughton went down 58 feet to the bottom, he saw something he hadn’t seen in three decades of diving: a preserved, Ice Age cypress forest.
“I’ve been diving in the Gulf since 1984 and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It looked like a prehistoric riverbed.”
In 2007, filmmaker and writer Ben Raines was taking scuba lessons from Broughton. Raines began asking questions about the forest’s location and only after he felt he could trust him did Broughton reveal the coordinates to the then-Mobile Press-Register reporter.
“It’s very cool,” Raines said. “It’s unlike anything else. Nowhere else can you see an Ice Age forest where the trees are still rooted in the ground.”
The forest acts as a sort of time capsule, Raines said. The trees present are different types of cypress than would be found today in the area. It signifies a much cooler climate for southern Alabama 50,000 or more years ago.
Upon seeing the forest, Raines immediately contacted scientists because he knew the trees would need to be studied. He also wrote about and filmed a documentary on the subject called “The Underwater Forest,” which can be viewed on YouTube.
One of the scientists in the documentary is Kristine DeLong, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Geography and Anthropology Department at Louisiana State University. In an email message, DeLong wrote the age of the Ice Age forest is technically unknown because the trees are too old to radiocarbon date.
“The wood is so old there is no more radioactive carbon left for the dating instrument (accelerator mass spectrometer) to count, thus radiocarbon dead,” she wrote. “Radiocarbon dating can only date objects with carbon (living things) that are about 50,000 years old or younger. Radioactive isotopes like carbon 14 (or radiocarbon) have a half-life of 5,730 years.
“This means at 5,730 years, half of the carbon 14 in the object has decayed to nitrogen. After 11,460 years, half of the remaining radiocarbon has decayed and so on. After eight or nine half-lives, there is not enough radiocarbon left to be measured, and that is what happened with the wood.”
DeLong also described the climate chaos the trees would have dealt with before they were covered by water and sediment. There is evidence, she wrote, shrinking ice sheets could have caused fluctuations in sea level rise at various intervals during this time.
“This would have caused flood plain aggregation where rivers, bayous and swamps far inland would flood quickly as well as with sea-level rise,” she wrote. “This is one of our hypotheses for what buried the forest and the trees. We are not 100 percent sure what happened, and that is why we are still doing more research and we will be back at the forest doing more surveys, coring and diving in the next two years once we can do fieldwork after the pandemic is over and we can travel safely.”
At the time Byrne and others began working on the protection legislation, a company from Vermont began a pre-application with the Army Corps of Engineers to excavate the site.
The Corps, Byrne said in a phone interview, takes its time in processing these pre-applications, so the legislation can still work its way through the House and Senate and become law before an application is approved.
“I’ve talked to committee chairs and leadership to expedite it,” he said. “I think both sides of the aisle support it.”
Because of the support, Byrne hopes the bill passes by the end of the year. If it doesn’t, he said, his predecessor can take it up.
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