SLANESVILLE, W.Va. -- Ice Mountain, the Hampshire County peak that earned its name and a recent National Natural Landmark designation for the refrigeration effect that takes place inside a sloping mass of boulders along its base, shows signs of thawing.
Since 1983, researchers from West Virginia University have been using temperature loggers to track the temperature of air flowing from some of nearly 150 natural vents found at the base of a 60-foot-thick boulder field that extends nearly to the top of the 1,500-foot peak.
The boulder field, or talus slope in geological terms, "is a very good cold-air trap," said Dr. J. Steven Kite, the geology professor at WVU who leads the Ice Mountain monitoring program. "The talus slope provides a lot of intake area, and the R-value of having 60 feet of rock for insulation must be in the thousands."
In winter, dense, cold air sinks deep into the Oriskany sandstone talus, and ice masses form in the spaces between the rocks. "By late winter," Kite said, "everything freezes and the vents close."
As the weather warms in spring and summer, air much cooler than outside temperatures is released through the ice vents at the base of the talus slope. The ice vent section at the bottom of the slope is about 250 yards long and 30 yards wide. "It takes months for the cold air to come out," Kite said.
For the past three years, though, air blowing from the vents at the base of Ice Mountain has reached above-freezing temperatures slightly earlier than usual. And this year, a 1 degree Celsius reading was attained on April 25, more than three weeks earlier than in any other year in which Kite and his graduate students have been logging temperatures.
Having the ice gone from Ice Mountain so early "is significant," said Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, which has protected a 159-acre section of Ice Mountain, including the ice vent area, since 1989. "There's reason to be concerned that a warming event may be going on."
A unique community of plants normally found at much higher latitudes and elevation has thrived in rocky soil near the ice vents probably since the end of the last Ice Age, according to Bartgis.
"It's one of the most remarkable features about this site," he said.
Dwarf dogwood, a plant that ranges from Eastern Canada to Alaska and also can be found at scattered sites above 4,000 feet in West Virginia, is found at an elevation of about 750 feet at the base of Ice Mountain. The bristly rose, also known as Arctic rose and the official provincial flower of Alberta, is another Canadian and Alaskan species that can be found at Ice Mountain, along with the twinflower, another plant normally found hundreds of miles to the north. At least six boreal, or Northern, plant species can be found near the base of Ice Mountain.
"Although this place and the plants that live here have likely persisted since the end of the Pleistocene [about 11,700 years ago], there is no promise that it will remain as it is through the coming decades," Bartgis said.
Kite said a lack of historic scientific data on Ice Mountain's natural refrigeration system makes it difficult to determine just how significant the current warming trend might be.