Southern Miss asst. professor helps uncover underwater forest - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Southern Miss assistant professor helps uncover underwater forest

Courtesy of  (Ben Raines/Press-Register) Courtesy of (Ben Raines/Press-Register)
HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

Scuba divers have discovered an underwater forest in the Gulf of Mexico about 10 miles off the coast of Mobile.

It's called the Bald Cyprus Forest. It was buried in 60 feet of water under ocean sediments and protected in an oxygen free environment for more than 50,000 years, until Hurricane Katrina and hurricanes following.

This underwater world has drawn the attention of researchers, including one assistant professor at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

At first, the underwater forest was predicted to be about 10,000 years old, but Ben Raines, one of the first divers to discover the underwater world, contacted Grant Harley. Harley is a dendochronologist (someone who studies tree rings) at The University of Southern Mississippi.

The wood found underwater looks, feels, and even smells like a regular piece of wood, except for the fact that it is over 50,000 years old.

Harley says the underwater forest resurrected isn't just a result of Hurricane Katrina, but other hurricanes, as well.

"At that water depth, you can really have some sediments being churned up by hurricanes. Our best guess is hurricanes between 2005 and 2008.

This is the first discovery of its kind in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This type of record is extremely rare in the Gulf Coast region," Harley said.

"There's not really any sort of comparable record that I can think of in this region of the world."

Harley is in the process of conducting research in Hattiesburg to find out more about the ancient forest, including the age of the wood, and climate conditions from between 50 and 80,000 years ago.

"The growth rings on this tree bark is indicative of climate conditions during that time period," he said.

This could lead to even more findings.

"The potential to find some archaeological remains of early humans, early native Americans that were migrating and moving throughout the continent, and bones from animals."

Now that the forest has resurrected to open water, there's one problem.

"Now that the forest is exposed, they're rapidly decaying."

Harley and a team of researchers are working to get National Geographic to fund the preservation of this ancient underwater land.

Copyright 2013 WDAM. All rights reserved.

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