When Hurricane Ivan formed in 2004, it did more than devastate regions of the Caribbean and the United States’ coast. According to the new documentary “The Underwater Forest,” it also unearthed a fossilized forest of cypress trees which grew more than 50,000 years ago. Located 60 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the underwater forest features trees which have intact bark and are still leaking sap.
Journalist Ben Raines discovered the underwater forest after conversing with fishermen who reported “unusual” activity in the area. The preserved forest is expected to have been buried by sediment, which protected it from decomposition, as a result of the last ice age which occurred approximately 60,000 years ago.
After Hurricane Ivan uncovered the forest, it transformed into a flourishing ecosystem. Said Professor Kristine DeLong, an LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology Associate, “Everything is in place in that ecosystem. It’s just been buried and preserved through time.”
The trees were prevented from decomposing due to the presence of thick mud. Without oxygen, decomposition could not occur in the underwater environment. However, the Category 4 hurricane — which had 140-mile per hour winds and 98-foot-tall waves — changed that in 2004.
Raines worked with scientists from Louisiana State University and the University of Southern Mississippi for the first samples and subsequent investigations. Using advanced sonar machines, the researchers discovered additional trees which are still buried approximately 10 feet below the sediment. The experts also used radio-carbon dating to discern the forests’ approximate age.
Reportedly, the trees show signs of “stress events.” This indicates that the trees experienced a rapid decrease in growth, followed by a quick increase, then a swift, final growth decline. The experts agree that the trees soon after died around the same time.
Due to pollution — which includes run-off and oil spills — the Gulf of Mexico is becoming more toxic every year. This newly-discovered ecosystem could provide a glimpse of the future of the Gulf coast, say the researchers. “It’s pretty rapid change, geologically speaking,” said paleontologist Martin Becker of William Paterson University. “We’re looking at 60 feet of seawater where a forest used to be. I’m looking at a lot of development, of people’s shore homes and condominiums, etc. The forest is predicting the future, and maybe a pretty unpleasant one.”
Images via The Underwater Forest/Ben Raines