By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The steady drip drip of news about the damage global warming is doing to marine environments, especially their corals, is bleak and depressing to this keen diver. I’m glad I saw the Great Barrier Reef before the latest rounds of warming – both under and above the water it’s a heart stopping spectacle.
I once spent about a month hanging out in Cooktown, in a part of Queensland that saw many Australian tourists, but attracted few foreign ones. In 1770, Captain Cook beached his bark, the HMS Endeavour, there and then had to figure out how to repair the damage the Great Barrier Reef had done to its hull.
One day I climbed to the top of the tallest hill and looked out at the Pacific, to see the pattern created by the reef. And realized Cook had probably done the same thing, no doubt several times in the seven weeks he spent int this place, seeing more or less the same ocean view. Despite an intervening 19th century gold rush – few signs of which other than some historic buildings were evident – I was able simply to enjoy the vista and get some sense of the extent of the reef. Cook’s thoughts were no doubt more troubled, dominated by the question – how the hell will I get out of this maze – even if he managed to repair his ship. Which he did – sailing away from this particular calamity.
Most marine news is depressing. The Guardian however featured a story last week, about the discovery of a sunken cypress forest off the coast of Alabama, ‘One of a kind’: calls to protect Alabama’s 60,000-year-old underwater forest. The forest is the only one of its kind known and is estimated to be 60,000 years old. So old that radiocarbon techniques are of no use in dating it.
Over to the Guardian:
Submerged below the waters are the remains of a cypress tree forest that grew 60,000 years ago, but was inundated by the Gulf of Mexico and preserved from decomposition beneath sediment. Nothing like Alabama’s underwater forest, in terms of age or scale, has ever been found.
Now efforts are under way to protect the expanse of tree stumps from exploitation by designating the site a marine sanctuary – some firms have sought to salvage the wood for commercial use – and to see if the underwater forest harbors new compounds for medicine.
After a hurricane uncovered the submerged forest, local divers brought the find to wider attention
It took giant waves driven by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to exhume the forest from its seafloor grave. In 2012, environmental journalist Ben Raines went in search of the arboreal seascape after he was tipped off by a savvy source in the local diving community.
One of Raines’s articles about “swimming with dinosaurs” caught the attention of Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University (and an avid scuba diver herself). She immediately called asking if she could carbon date some samples from the site.
After sending samples out to a colleague for dating, she received an email saying the trees were – to her surprise – ‘radiocarbon dead’. “Essentially, that means they’re older than 50,000 years,” DeLong said. “We did it three times to make sure.” She then turned to a team of geologists who collected core samples from the seafloor and confirmed the results.
With that, Raines and DeLong formed a partnership to extract as much knowledge from the site as possible while also preserving it. “From a scientific perspective, it’s a goldmine of information that we just don’t have access to anywhere else,” Delong says. She has worked with a cadre of scientists – from dendrochronologists to geologists and marine biologists – using only non-invasive instruments to collect rare information on Ice Age-era climate, rainfall, insects and plants.
The forest’s bald cypress trunks are teeming with life, including shipworms – types of clams that like munching on wood so much they’re known as the “termite of the sea”. Researchers are collecting these and other marine creatures from the depths to study their chemical potential to produce life-saving medicines on the surface.
Alas, at one time – incredible as this now seems – it looked like salvage companies might log the ancient forest, and turn its 60,000 year-old timbers into coffee tables, curiosities for those without any sense: of how rare and special these ancient logs are. An Alabama Republican House member, Bradley Byrne introduced legislation that would make the forest site as a marine sanctuary before leaving office earlier this month:
But the site is at risk from salvage companies seeking to dig up the ancient logs and sell them. According to DeLong, the army corps of engineers had received a permit request in 2020 from a furniture company seeking to salvage wood from the site.
With a wealth of potential information and research, it’s no wonder scientists have worked for years to stop the valuable 50,000-year-old wood from becoming high-end coffee tables. In October, a Republican representative from Alabama, Bradley Byrne, proposed the creation of a national marine sanctuary encompassing the ancient underwater forest.
“The underwater forest is another unique Alabama gem with global importance. 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,” Byrne said in a statement when he introduced the bill.
“This is a one of a kind natural wonder, like Yellowstone national park, or the Grand Canyon,” Raines told AL.com in October. “ It should be protected from exploitation and saved for the American public, just like those amazing sites on land.”
Under this designation, the sunken forest would stay open to tourists, fishermen and research groups, but it would be protected rom logging, peat harvesting and other disruptive activities. Though Congress didn’t pass the underwater forest bill before Byrne left office earlier this month, he told NBC he’s very hopeful the next Congress will.
I hope some successor to Byrne’s legislation, the ALABAMA UNDERWATER FOREST NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY AND PROTECTION ACT – or something similar – is enacted soon. Doing so won’t do anything to save the many coral reefs global warming is destroying worldwide. But at least such a bill could make sure these 60,000 year-old trees don’t end up as someone’s coffee table.