One of the iconic images of climate change and global warming is melting polar ice caps. Closer to home in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, what’s known as nature’s icebox, or Ice Mountain, has been melting earlier most seasons in the last decade. The site has been named a national natural landmark. West Virginia University’s Dr. J. Steven Kite says Ice Mountain is a cold air trap, a talus slope in West Virginia.
A talus slope is an accumulation of boulders at the bottom of a hill. He says Ice Mountain gets its name from the fact that going back to the 1700s, people recognized that ice would last much longer in this slope than it would in surrounding areas. For many years, through the 1800s, it was used as a dairy—a place where you could store milk, cheese, butter and other items well into the summer.
Kite says sometimes the vents at Ice Mountain are called ice caves.
“But, in fact, only one of them there could you actually get two people into. It’s more like just open spaces between boulders,” Kite says.
Ice Mountain isn’t the only place in the Appalachians where cold air traps exist. Kite says he knows of several in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But Ice Mountain does have a collection of five or six rare plant species that are out of place there.
“Ice Mountain is 750 feet above sea level. One of the plants there, Bristly Rose, is known at one other place in West Virginia and that’s over 4,000 feet above sea level. It’s not known in Pennsylvania, and it’s not known in Ohio. You have to go all the way up into New York and New England in order to find Bristly Rose again,” Kite explains.
Kite is a geologist trying to understand the geological conditions leading to cold air traps. He says at Ice Mountain the accumulation of boulders is unusually thick—possibly 60 or more feet thick. Most of the talus slopes on the sides of the mountains in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland are only 12 feet thick or less. The thickness at Ice Mountain probably plays a role in the ice formation because there’s more space to store cold air.
Kite has been recording temperatures at Ice Mountain since 2003, and says there has been a lot of variability. The general trend is that the ice lasts less now than when he first started recording.
“The main thing that I see was that in 2012 this incredibly warm year, things warmed up at least three to four weeks ahead of schedule. Often ice is hanging until late May and in June at Ice Mountain. And it looks like it was gone in late April,” he says.
The danger is not that the unusual plants there will suffer from the ice declining, but that competitors will be able to flourish. Kite says it’s disconcerting to see.
“Now there are historic accounts of the ice lasting as late as September. But that goes back to the 1800s when they were actually managing the site. They were piling up snow, burying it with boulders. They were giving it a boost, if you will, so I’m not sure that’s comparable to today. But there are more recent observations of the ice lasting into July and I haven’t seen anything approaching that at Ice Mountain,” he says.