By JOHN McCABE
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register
NORTH RIVER MILLS — Long before the modern convenience of conditioned air, the residents of North River Mills in Hampshire County, W.Va., experienced a chilling effect on what is known as Ice Mountain.
For thousands of years, ice has formed naturally on the mountain late into the spring and early summer months through a refrigeration effect that takes place deep inside its talus – a sloping mass of sandstone boulders at the foot of the 1,500-foot-tall mountain. This mass of sandstone boulders – Steve Kite, head of the Geology and Geography Department at West Virginia University, estimates it at 60 feet thick – traps dense, cold air, and ice masses form inside. As the weather warms, the cooler air flows out of vents among the rocks at the bottom of the slope, allowing ice to form when conditions are right.
In the 19th century, residents of North River Mills harvested the ice for lemonade and ice cream, among other items.
Local residents also believe Native Americans used the area extensively and that both Union and Confederate troops visited during the Civil War.
Along with offering cool air – during a tour of the mountain last week Kite measured the outside temperature at 55 degrees and the temperature coming out of a vent at 49 degrees – the unique features of Ice Mountain have spurred the growth of several plant species – twinflowers, dwarf dogwood and bristly rose among them – that usually flourish only in more northern climates. What makes all this even more interesting is that the vents are only about 750 feet above sea level.
The Nature Conservancy purchased 159 acres of Ice Mountain in 1989 to protect the mountain’s vents and plant species. The National Park Service last week recognized the conservancy’s efforts in officially dedicating Ice Mountain as a National Natural Landmark.
“Ice Mountain … contains unique geological and biological features that contribute to the understanding of our nation’s natural heritage,” said Beth Johnson of the National Park Service. “Our hope is that the NPS can help foster a better understanding of the natural resource we have here.”
Rodney Bartgis, state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, thanked all those who have assisted over the years in preserving Ice Mountain. He noted each summer, New York City youth travel to the area to assist with tasks such as trail preservation and halting the spread of invasive grasses.
“We’re in debt to the many people who have helped to protect Ice Mountain over the years,” Bartgis said. “And without what’s been done here over the past 20 years that the conservancy has been owner, we would not have (this) today.”
But even with the conservancy’s work, the unique features of Ice Mountain are in danger.
During a tour prior to the dedication, Bartgis and Kite outlined the dangers facing Ice Mountain. Chief among them is an apparent warming trend.
WVU’s Kite has been collecting air temperature data at several ice vents for the past nine years. Prior to this year, the earliest the temperature from a vent had gone above 35 degrees Fahrenheit was May 16, 2011. This year, he recorded a temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius, or 35.5 degrees Fahrenheit, on April 25.
“As Dr. Kite has found, for things all of a sudden to be happening three weeks earlier – ecologically, that’s a pretty significant event,” Bartgis said. “That’s based on what’s happened in the last (nine) years. We really don’t have the information to know what that long-term trend is. … One event doesn’t necessarily mean this is what’s going to continue happening. But in light of everything else that is going on with this planet, there’s reason to be concerned that we have a warming event going on here.”
“The general trend is that the last three years have been warmer, but this year stands out as exceptionally warmer than any of the years before,” Kite added. “Again, we can go back to the historical narrative saying that ice was here until September, if that is accurately portrayed and not a product of managing for ice. … I do know that in the ’60s someone came here in August with a thermometer and measured (at a vent) 3.5 degrees Celsius (38.3 Fahrenheit). I’ve never seen anything colder in August than 7 degrees Celsius (44.6 Fahrenheit). That’s 6 degrees Fahrenheit colder in the ’60s than any temperature I’ve measured in my nine years.”
Bartgis noted warmer temperatures from the vents earlier in the year could affect the life cycle of many of the mountain’s plants.
“If something is all of a sudden blooming in the second or third week of May, and it’s pollinated by some butterfly that’s not going to fly until the first week of June, then its reproduction is shot for that year,” he said. “It’s even probably more significant for other species – a lot of things that are common in West Virginia are not able to survive up in the higher elevations because of the shorter growing season. But if the growing season gets longer here, those things that are already common here could start spreading into where the rare species are … and start outcompeting the rare species.”
“From a geologist’s perspective, the fact you have an odd plant or two – you could blame it on bird droppings, whatever. … Here you have an assemblage of plants, and it’s hard to argue an assemblage of plants would come together through accidental bird dropping. I think this community has been here since the Ice Age, and probably over time has lost a few members as climate changed. That means that this system has probably been working for at least 10,000 years,” Kite added.
Bartgis said the Nature Conservancy is concerned with the warming trend being recorded around West Virginia and the nation. Along with calling for reduced emissions to address climate change, the conservancy is taking the following steps at Ice Mountain to reduce stressors on the environment:
— volunteer led hikes – this ensures that rare plants are not trampled by visitors who may stray from the trail;
— controlling and monitoring invasive species such as the Japanese stilt grass, which is gaining a foothold on the mountain;
— surveying for harmful insects and diseases in native plants;
— treating the area’s hemlock trees to control the woolly adelgid bug that could kill the trees. Hemlocks provide shade to also help keep Ice Mountain’s ecosystem in balance.
The effort to protect and preserve Ice Mountain is appreciated in North River Mills.
“We know Native Americans used Ice Mountain, and both the North and the South were here during the Civil War,” said lead volunteer Terry Bailes, who with her her husband Steve lives next to the trailhead. “Our daughter got engaged here, and we renewed our wedding vows. We are just very moved by this.”
Tours of Ice Mountain are by appointment only. For more information, call 304-496-7359.
Ice Mountain is West Virginia’s 15th National Natural Landmark, and the second managed by The Nature Conservancy. The other is Cranesville Swamp, which sits on the Maryland/West Virginia border in Preston and Garrett counties.