Some 50,000 years ago, Earth was experiencing an ice age, sea levels had dropped precipitously, and the Alabama coastline stretched over 10 miles further out to sea than it does today. Thick cypress forests covered a swampy valley in places that are now covered in over 60 feet of seawater.
It's difficult to imagine, but there's one place where the remnants of these ancient forests still exist like tangible ghosts; where deep below the surface, cypress trunks peek out of the sediment; where fish congregate like fairies.
Environmental reporter Ben Raines described the first time he descended down into this ancient undersea woodland: "It was like entering a fairy world," he told The Washington Post. "You get down there, and there are these cypress trees, and there are logs lying on the bottom, and you can touch them and peel the bark off."
Raines has directed a newly released documentary, produced by the multimedia group This is Alabama and the Alabama Coastal Foundation, that showcases this magical place like never before.
The forest stretches the equivalent of multiple city blocks deep beneath the surface of modern-day Mobile Bay. Clues to its whereabouts only became apparent a little over a decade ago, when Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Alabama coast in 2004 and produced massive waves that likely scooped out about 10 feet of sediment on the bay floor, exposing the buried trees for the first time in millennia.
The secret to the forest's amazing state of preservation is that the original sediment it got buried in likely had extremely low oxygen levels, meaning that bacteria were unable to survive to break down the material. The wood is so well preserved that ancient sap that's still sticky and fragrant can be squeezed out of it.
"These trees were basically entombed or hermetically sealed," explained Raines. "They have nine feet of sediment over them, and oxygen is locked out. It's similar to peat bogs in Ireland, where scientists have found human bodies that were preserved by the unique environmental conditions."
Cores from this layer of peat reveal some ominous lessons about climate change. The forest was buried rapidly, eventually inundated by sea levels that rose by as much as 8 feet every 100 years. It's a preview of what could happen in the near future if global warming remains unchecked. Coastlines can disappear rapidly.
Are there coastal forests standing today that could become covered in 60 feet of ocean water? Alabama's underwater cypress forests are a humbling reminder that sharks could one day hover over treetops where birds now fly. The contours of our world are delicate and impermanent indeed.