Explained: Why Joe Biden’s presidency could be critical for a 60,000-year-old underwater forest

Joe Biden has promised to make climate change and the environment priorities for his administration alongside tackling racism, inequality and Covid-19.

Among the petitions before United States President Joe Biden from environmentalists is one to save a unique forest off the coast of Alabama. Unique because the entire forest is underwater — 10 fathoms (60 feet) deep — and made up of the remains of cypress trees that grew in the ice age, 60,000 years ago, when prehistoric humans were just starting to move out of Africa.

The forest was submerged in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as sea levels rose, and remained entombed in thick layers of sediment, mud and sand for millennia. The sediments prevented oxygen from decomposing the stumps, barks and other remnants of the forest.

The forest was discovered only after Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004 and unleashed giant waves that removed the sediments. Divers thereafter saw a perfectly preserved cypress forest that was unlike anything else on earth.

“It is a relic of eons past…from a time long before man even dreamt of sailing ships. You can even trace the path of an ancient river that once wove through the forest when it was dry land,” says a 2017 documentary by environmental journalist Ben Raines, titled ‘The Underwater Forest’.

What is the threat

“The site is at risk from salvage companies seeking to dig up the ancient logs and sell them,” Alabama-based AL.com wrote on Facebook in January 2019 while promoting an online campaign to have the forest declared a marine sanctuary.

Bradley Byrne, who served as the US Representative for Alabama’s 1st congressional district from 2014 to 2021, told AL.com that a furniture company had applied for a permit to excavate the forest site for the ancient, preserved timbers.

On October 27, 2020, Representative Byrne introduced in Congress The Alabama Underwater Forest National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, which would allow tourists, fisherfolk and research groups to visit the site, but not enterprises interested in harvesting it for peat and timber, or carrying out other disruptive activities.

The Bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Byrne’s fourth term in Congress ended on January 3, and he has since been replaced in Congress by fellow Republican Jerry Carl. “I am very hopeful the next Congress will (pass the Bill),” Rep. Byrne told NBC.

Prospects for science

In December 2019, a team of scientists from Northeastern University and the University of Utah went on an expedition into the “ancient submarine forest”. The expedition was funded by the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a scientific agency under the US Department of Commerce.

After the dive, the scientists took samples of wood back to the laboratory and found more than 300 animals in them. “The team’s focus is on bacteria found in wood-eating ‘shipworms’, a type of clam (teredinid bivalve). These ‘termites of the sea’ convert wood into animal tissue, forming the base of a food chain that can support a rich diversity of fish, invertebrates, and microorganisms in communities that resemble thriving coral reefs,” an August-December 2020 NOAA report (‘Bioprospecting for Industrial Enzymes and Drug Compounds in an Ancient Submarine Forest’) said.

The NOAA report underlined the underwater forest’s massive potential to “harbour new compounds for medicine and biotechnology”. It said:

“Within 100-200 prepared culture plates, the team identified approximately 100 strains of bacteria, many of which are novel and 12 of which are already undergoing DNA sequencing for further study of their identity and their biosynthetic potential to make new drugs. Additionally, future analyses on the collected samples will allow researchers to identify any analgesic and antimicrobial compounds and hydrolytic enzymes capable of degrading the components of wood. Such enzymes have broad application in production of pulp, paper, textiles, food, animal feeds, fine chemicals, and renewable fuels.”

NOAA added that “the scientists have so far sampled only a tiny fraction of the ancient forest site”, and some “profound changes” were expected as their work progressed.

Biden and the environment

The new US President has promised to make climate change and the environment priorities for his administration alongside tackling racism, inequality and Covid-19. In Biden’s first acts in office, the US rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and revoked the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s federal permit that environmentalists considered a threat to ecosystems, climate, and drinking water, among others.

President Biden has appointed Debra Haaland as head of the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the land and natural resources of the US. Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history (she is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, a federally recognised tribe of Native American people), is known for her concerns towards climate change and tribal populations. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land,” she said in her acceptance speech.

Advocates of the underwater forest are looking at the new administration now.

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