A sandstone talus slope at the base of Ice Mountain traps cold air, allowing ice masses to form early and remain into the warmer months. Openings in the talus, seen in foreground, vent cold air, creating a microclimate in which plants normally found far to the north can flourish.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ice Mountain in Hampshire County has been designated a national natural landmark, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Friday, as part of the 50th-anniversary observance of the National Natural Landmarks program.
California's Lake Shasta Caverns also were designated a national natural landmark on Friday.
"With the addition of these two outstanding sites, we now have 593 national natural landmarks representing the extraordinary geological and ecological diversity of our nation," Salazar said. "These designations provide a means to work in voluntary partnership with public and private landowners to research, monitor and preserve our natural treasures for generations to come."
Ice Mountain gets its name from the natural refrigeration effect that occurs inside its talus -- a sloping mass of shattered sandstone boulders at the foot of the 1,500-foot-tall peak. In cooler months, dense, cold air sinks deep into the talus, causing masses of ice to form inside. As the weather warms up, cool air flows out of vents found among the boulders at the base of the slope.
"Even during the middle of summer, the air coming out of those vents is always significantly cooler" than ambient air temperatures, said Amy Cimarolli, director of science and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy of West Virginia, which protects Ice Mountain in a 149-acre preserve.
Earlier residents of North River Mills, the community nearest Ice Mountain, would make summertime visits to the talus vents, where they would chip off chunks of ice to bring home to chill lemonade or use to make homemade ice cream.
Botanists later discovered that the cool air flowing out of the nearly 60 vents at the base of the talus slope produced a microclimate that supported a community of boreal plants usually found at more northern locations.
"To me, the most fascinating plant found there is the twinflower, which is found in the far north around the globe, from Scandinavia to Alaska," said Rodney Bartgis, director of The Nature Conservancy's West Virginia office.
While scattered populations of twinflowers do occur at more southerly locations, Bartgis said, it is rare to find the species at such a low elevation -- about 700 feet above sea level at the base of Ice Mountain -- at these latitudes.
Twinflowers, which each produce two tiny bell-shaped flowers, were the favorite species of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of the modern system of botanical nomenclature. The plant was given the scientific name Linnaea borealis in his honor.
Other plants of note found at Ice Mountain include dwarf dogwood, Canada mayflower, bristly rose and Appalachian oak fern.
Bartgis said Interior Department personnel contacted his office several years ago regarding possible national natural landmark status for Ice Mountain.
"They thought it was a place of great significance," he said, "and they wanted to know if we were comfortable with that designation -- which, of course, we were."
Adding the Hampshire County peak to the National Natural Landmark list "recognizes that Ice Mountain is a national treasure, not just a West Virginia treasure," Bartgis said. "It's satisfying to us that our conservation work is helping to protect such a treasure and to raise its visibility."
Conservation work taking place at the Ice Mountain preserve includes removing invasive non-native plants like garlic mustard and Japanese stillgrass, and treating hemlocks, which add cooling shade to the talus slope, to protect them from lethal hemlock woolly adelgid infestations.
To minimize the impact to the preserve's rare-plant area, public visits to Ice Mountain are led by trained volunteer guides, and groups are limited to 15 participants. The preserve has two trails, one taking visitors to the rare-plant area, and the other leading to the preserve's cliffs and rocky summit.
"We average between 300 and 500 visitors a year," said Bartgis.
Ice Mountain is West Virginia's 15th national natural landmark, and the second managed by The Nature Conservancy, the other being Cranesville Swamp, which straddles the West Virginia-Maryland border. Other West Virginia national natural landmarks include Canaan Valley in Tucker County, Cathedral State Park in Preston County, the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in Pocahontas, Gaudineer Scenic Area in Randolph County, Organ Cave in Monroe County and the Germany Valley Karst Area in Pendleton County.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.