In the world’s present state of massive deforestation and climate change woes, it’s easy (and correct) to imagine beautiful landscapes rendered desolate in the future. At least one incredible sight has been preserved — an ancient, underwater forest in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dating back to the Ice Age more than 60,000 years ago, the forest of cypress trees once breathed carbon dioxide above the water’s surface, like any other. Long ago, sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are now, and the forest is increasingly relevant to researchers considering that our planet is being inundated with sea level rise caused by climate change. As it stands, NASA satellite data shows that sea levels around the world have consistently risen since 1993 thanks to global warming, and it’s projected to render 760 million people homeless in the future.
That aside, the forest is “considered a treasure trove of information” when it comes to understanding Earth’s ancient history, according to a Reddit AMA. “Scientific analysis of the site is ongoing.”
Researchers started studying the forest after Ben Raines, a documentary filmmaker and environmental reporter, was given a tip about it from an Alabama dive shop owner. Eventually, the shop owner helped Raines track it down — despite being 60 feet underwater — and then Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University interested in studying the site, got in touch. Together, they partnered on a project, which is detailed at length in Raines’ documentary called The Underwater Forest.
Scientists think it’s the world’s only lasting coastal forest from the Ice Age. Though cypress trees normally decompose over 10,000 years, Delong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University explained on the Reddit AMA that low-oxygen sediments may have stopped bacteria from breaking down the wood underwater.
“This site was a backwater swamp where the water and sediments have little to no oxygen in them,” she wrote. “Generally, no oxygen, no decomposition.”
For now, more research on the site has to be done. So far, there are no signs of human life, but the trees are basically a time capsule of the Ice Age for scientists.
“When you cut one with a saw, it is as difficult as cutting a modern tree down in your yard. Then, you smell the distinct odor of fresh cut cypress, just like cutting into a pine tree,” Rainer wrote on Reddit. “They are perfectly preserved as if they died yesterday. They still have bark on them even.”