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SUPERFOLK GUIDE: Ancient Drowned Forests

SUPERFOLK GUIDE: Ancient Drowned Forests

If you head down to the shore, on a low Spring tide, you might encounter something unusual. At first glance, it looks like the beach is strewn with rocks and stone. But, on closer inspection, these rocks are revealed to be large, gnarly, tree stumps rising through the sand. It can feel a bit disorientating. Trees growing in the sea? How can this be?
This is a story about a sudden dramatic climate change and sea rise, roughly 5,000 years ago.



Standing on the shoreline it is hard to imagine now that about 5,000-7,000 years ago this was a dramatically different landscape. Right here, on the beach where this photograph was taken, there was a landscape of lagoons and marshlands with thriving mixed forests of oak, yew, birch and pine. The land was populated with people, animals, plants, wolves and bears. And, it is estimated, the sea level was about 5m lower than it now is.



An expected reminder of this ancient landscape has recently been unveiled.

In the last few years winter storms in the west of Ireland have battered the coastline. High winds, combined with large sea swells, have ripped up local roads, cracked 70 year old concrete piers and shifted vast tonnes of sand, stone and boulders inland. Amongst all of this havoc, winter storms have uncovered something surprising and quite magical - ancient ‘drowned forests’.

On some of the most exposed beaches of Galway, Mayo and Cork, the sea has stripped back sands and stones to reveal tree stumps, root systems and forest floor debris thought to be somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 years old.

It is a pretty special feeling to be in the presence of these trees. And, on the day we were there, we had the beach to ourselves.



Studies reveal that some of these trees are thought to have been over 100 years old at the point that they died.  These tree stumps are embedded and standing in the original positions with their root system intact. Researchers suggest this indicates that the trees died quite quickly. Most likely at a time of a rapid sea rise.

Ever since these dramatic events these tree stumps and roots have been submerged and preserved in a saline rich environment, hidden under the sand, for thousands of years.



Today, on a casual walk along the beach, you can find tree stumps and root systems. You may also notice extensive loose materials and large boulders of peat which were once part of the ancient forest floor. You can reach out and touch trees that are over 5,000 years old. Quite humbling really when you think about it.



When trying to identify the trees here we used the rule of thumb - oak changes colour to black, and yew turns to a reddish-brown. Pine softens to a golden yellow. Based on this rough estimation it looks as though the beach was once a forest of oaks and yew. 



Climate change can feel remote or abstract at times. But standing on this beach is to witness to the reality of dramatic changing weather patterns, a changing climate and a landscape in movement. We live again in a time of increasingly extreme and abnormal climate change.

It is impossible not to make a connection between the sudden, dramatic and unexplained sea rise 5,000 years ago and our current climate emergency. It is afterall, the strength of recent winter storms that have exposed these submerged “drowned forests”.  However, it needs to be noted here, these occasional unveilings of Ireland’s lost forests are not new. There are historical records of submerged forests along Ireland’s coasts, including in the writing of Praeger in the 19th century.

Also, it needs to be said that while scientists may not have conclusively solved the mystery of why the sea rose so dramatically 5,000 years ago, we are certain that our current climate crisis is in large part a man-made calamity.

If there is any neat conclusion to be drawn from this story… it might just be to say…

5,000 years ago a sudden dramatic climate change wiped out these thriving forests. Today, such forests are what we need to help halt our climate crisis.




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