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Geo-Joint: Underwater Logging

Posted on April 19 2016

Logging is one of the most dangerous jobs you can do. Knocking over big heavy things using sharp running power tools on slippery slopes and dragging them to somewhere else using heavy equipment – what could go wrong? However, even if done injury-free, unfortunate circumstances can hinder the operation. In logging’s older days, felled logs would be dragged down to a river, encircled by a boom, and floated to a sawmill. In stormy weather, these log rafts might break up and be lost. In any kind of weather, a certain percentage of them would get waterlogged and sink to the bottom. That percentage, given the enormous amount of logging that went on even in the days before mechanization, amounted to many, many thousands, and possibly millions of logs.

In northern climates, the cold water of rivers and lakes acted as a perfect preservation environment. Without much oxygen, and with no termites or beetles to eat them, the logs, some felled hundreds of years ago, sat undisturbed at the bottom of Lake Superior and many other forest-rimmed water bodies. In modern times, using sonar, timber hunters can find these fallen giants and retrieve them. Amazingly, though they are soaked, they are not rotted, and after drying can be milled like modern wood. But the wood in these logs is not like modern wood. These trees were original growth and often quite large. In many places, the hardwood trees grew slowly under the shade of taller conifers and their grain is much denser than today’s faster-growing trees. The quality of the wood is prized by fine furniture and cabinetmakers, so the extra expense involved in locating and obtaining these old logs is worth the effort.

These kinds of salvage logging operations can be found in a number of places around the U.S. and the world, but they’re all in freshwater lakes or rivers. Around 2012 though, a similar discovery was made in a most atypical place. A fisherman from Mobile, Alabama, began to notice fish congregating at a spot about 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Further investigation revealed that the reason for the richness of the fish supply in an area where there shouldn’t have been any particular attraction, was a wealth of cypress tree stumps as well as downed logs. Divers who went down to study the situation brought back samples that were dated to a minimum of 50,000 years old. With diameters up to 10 feet, these trees may have been 2,000 years old when they were buried.

The best explanation of why this forest was found in 60 feet of saltwater is that it had somehow gotten buried in ancient times by some cataclysmic event, and then the sea later rose to cover the land. It is believed the buried environment lay undisturbed until massive 90 foot waves stirred up by Hurricane Ivan or Katrina dug up five or six feet of overlying sediment and exposed the trees. Fish, anemones, and other marine life soon colonized the surfaces and safe nooks and crannies afforded by the stumps. Film taken of the scene on the bottom show what appears to be a relict riverbed lined with stumps and roots covering an area of about a square half-mile . Those who discovered it kept the coordinates of the location secret in order to thwart underwater loggers from grabbing the wood, which is high-quality. The timber is so well preserved that when cut, it still smells of freshly-cut lumber and oozes a bit of sap. It is hoped the area will be ruled off-limits to loggers and preserved as fish habitat and a historic monument. Sadly, the wood now exposed to salt water will probably decompose in time, but for now it is a natural wonderland.

Less likely to be coveted for their timber value, ancient oak tree stumps rooted in tidal areas have come to light in the last few years along the coast of Wales after erosion from heavy storms. And in the area of the Dogger Bank off England in the North Sea, other tree stumps have been located by divers looking for artifacts of the Neolithic peoples who lived there before the sea rose. It seems the ocean has its own store of ancient forests, just waiting for shifting sands or adventurous divers to reveal them.

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