The Unveiling of an Ancient Underwater Forest off Alabama Coast

Image: Underwater forest along Alabama Coast
Scientists believe the forest was uncovered by mother nature in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan roiled the seabed.NBC News

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By Matthew Vann and Kerry Sanders

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Deep beneath the surface, off the coast of Alabama, lies a hidden treasure not known to man for thousands of years: an ancient underwater forest.

Long concealed and preserved under a thick layer of sediment are clusters of cypress trees, which scientists believe was uncovered by Hurricane Ivan back in 2004.

The exact spot of the forest was unknown for years until local fishermen happened upon it, just by noticing something odd on the sonar.

“We didn’t know what it was,” said Chas Broughton, a local fisherman. “And that’s why we thought we need to get some scientists out here.”

And when the scientists did show up, it was determined that the trees dated as far back as the ice ages, some 60,000 years ago.

The challenge now for the forest is that these once buried trees are beginning to decompose as the mud that preserved the trees got washed away by Hurricane Ivan.

Researchers from Louisiana State University estimate the forest was about half a square mile, that’s because they believe where the Gulf of Mexico is now, there was an island with a fresh water river rushing right through it.

Some scientists say these trees may hold key clues to how climate change could affect the future.

"These trees died very quickly and we want to see how that's tied to sea-level rise," said Kristine DeLong, a paleo-climatologist at Louisiana State University.

The discovery of the ancient forest is also the subject of a popular documentary film. Film maker and environmental reporter Ben Raines documented the journey 60 feet below the surface to learn a little bit more about the trees in a documentary film.

“You're in this sort of ethereal fairy world, where the stumps are covered in Anemones and everything,” said Raines. “But you realize they're trees.”