November 22, 2014  

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Southern Miss Geographer Studying Ancient Underwater Bald Cypress Forest

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Grant Harley

A University of Southern Mississippi geography professor’s research on an underwater Gulf Coast forest that may date back around 80,000 years could yield important clues about the region’s climate and habitat.

Dr. Grant Harley, whose expertise includes dendochronology (the study of tree rings), is studying samples from what appears to be a bald cypress forest that previously existed in a swamp above water, growing during the Wisconsin Glacial Period. Harley said the period was marked by cold climate events, followed by rapid warming.

Located off of the coast of Mobile, Ala. under about 60 feet of water, the forest likely became visible to divers after tropical storms cleared away overlaying sediment to expose its stumps and logs with some measuring eight feet in diameter. It now acts as an artificial reef.

“They probably looked like massive redwood trees before becoming submerged,” Harley said.

He first learned about the forest through Ben Raines, a Mobile-area diver and executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, which researches estuaries. Raines examined the forest after learning about its existence from a friend who owned a local dive store.

Harley is working with Louisiana State University geography professor Kristen DeLong on the project, with additional assistance from Dr. David Dodd and Dr. Kenneth Barbor of the Southern Miss Department of Marine Science.

Harley and DeLong plan to continue their research through this year and into 2014, with hopes of securing more samples from about 50-100 of the trees to get a good radiocarbon sample and examine tree rings to gain more knowledge about the forest’s history.  

“What we’ll do is compare these samples with other paleoclimate records to give us an idea about climate conditions on the Gulf Coast 50-80,000 years ago, which we can tell by looking at tree growth rings,” he said. “It would give us an annual record of climate during a time period in the earth’s history when climate change was happening rapidly.

“If it was cold or dry, that would result in tiny, narrow growth rings, but warm or wet conditions would result in wider growth rings. To have a record of that would be unique and rare,” he said.

Southern Miss Vice President for Research Gordon Cannon said the project is “a beautiful example of how major scientific discoveries come from places you least expect them.”

“Measuring the rings from these ancient  trees will give us a completely novel approach to following climate change in prehistoric times, which, in turn, helps us understand the cycle of climate change effecting us today,” Cannon said.

With scientists and environmental experts expressing concerns about global warming, such information would be beneficial for future generations. “We’re looking to understand what happened in the past, because what happened in the past is what’s key to understanding the future,” Harley said.

The Southern Miss geography program marks its 100th anniversary during the 2012-2013 academic year. For more information about the Department of Geography and Geology and its programs, online visit http://www.usm.edu/geography-geology.