PROFESSOR: Kristine DeLong, paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University
DOCUMENTARY JOURNALIST: Ben Raines, AL.com environmental reporter
The Underwater Forest details the discovery and exploration of an ancient cypress forest found sixty feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, due south of Gulf Shores, Alabama. The forest dates to an ice age more than 60,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today. The forest appears to be a wholly unique relic of our planet’s past, the only known site where a coastal ice age forest this old has been preserved in place. It is considered a treasure trove of information, providing new insights into everything from climate in the region to annual rainfall, insect populations, and the types of plants that inhabited the Gulf Coast before humans arrived in the new world. Scientific analysis of the site is ongoing.
The documentary follows the work of the team investigating the site, both underwater and in the laboratory. The film was written and directed by AL.com’s Ben Raines, who also filmed the underwater sequences and organized the first scientific missions to the site.
The scientists believe the forest was buried beneath the Gulf sediments for eons, until giant waves driven by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 uncovered it. Raines and AL.com collected the first samples from the site, and participated in every scientific mission to the site, beginning in 2012. Dropping 10 fathoms down, below the green waves of the Gulf and back in time to this prehistoric world amounts to a sort of time traveler’s journey. Nothing like the forest, in terms of age or scale, has ever been found. The oxygen-free underwater environment has hermetically sealed the trees in a sort of natural time capsule.
Watch the documentary here: http://www.thisisalabama.org/underwaterforest/
I study past climate and am interested in the changes that occurred in the last 2,000 years as well as the past 125,000 years during the last ice age. I am a scuba diver and my research is mostly in the tropics and subtropics (I prefer warm water diving).
I just spent an amazing three days introducing Louisiana wetlands to 10 incredible minority undergraduates, many of whom have never seen an ocean or a wetland. We saw how Tropical Storm Cindy changed a barrier island, dodge thunderstorms in boat, kayaked in the salt grass marsh lands, had a shrimp boil with my colleagues from the United Houma native american tribe (Merci beaucoup Seafood Kingdom!), and toured the Atchafalaya baldcypress swamp with The Nature Conservancy - Louisiana.
I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked in the corporate world for 12 years before going back to school to get my Ph.D.
The Underwater Forest is a project I have been involved in for five years now and it has truly been a unique experience in many ways. I found Ben online and we started to talk about the forest and he took me out to see it. I contacted colleagues to tell them about the trees and we dated the first wood samples; we were very surprise to learn how old they were. This is truly a unique site due to its location and age. I now lead a team of six scientists, four graduate students, one undergraduate, and other colleagues in researching the underwater ancient forest. I am seeking new collaborations and I want to bring in other experts to the project so we can learn as much as we can from this unique time capsule of an ice age landscape. Our team has learned a lot about the site but we still have many more questions to answer.
I first learned of the Underwater Forest from a dive shop owner in Alabama. He discovered the forest about a year after Hurricane Ivan, when a fisherman came into the dive shop and said, “I’ve found this spot that’s just loaded with fish but there’s barely anything in terms of structure that shows up on my depth finder. Why don’t you go out there and take a look.” The fisherman turned over the coordinates to his spot, and the dive shop owner made a trip and found the bottom littered with cypress stumps and logs scattered around.
Luckily, the dive shop guy decided to keep the location a secret. He did so because of his experience seeing small natural coral outcroppings destroyed by divers collecting live rock for the aquarium trade. Knowing I was an environmental journalist, he decided to tell me about the forest. After a couple years of bugging him, he agreed to take me to the site on the condition that I never reveal the coordinates to anyone. He agreed to let me write a story. Kristine called me the day the story came out, explained her expertise as a scuba diving paleoclimatologist, and asked if I could get her samples of the wood so she could have them carbon dated.
When those first samples turned out to be radio-carbon dead, meaning too old to be dated that way, she asked if she could come with us to the site and collect more samples. You see her first visit to the forest in the film. She assembled a team of scientists including dendrochronologists, geologists and paleontologists. Much of their research is revealed in the film and in several papers Kristine has published. Some of the most interesting finds are newly revealed, since filming was completed.
In particular, the pollen assemblage seen in the sediment cores that LSU collected. The story at this link provides a sort of layman’s primer on everything I’ve gleaned about the forest from my earliest visits to Kristine’s research. It also has a lot of pictures of the site and a link to the Underwater Forest film. A quick read might be useful to help formulate your questions.