Appalachian Laboratory ecologist identifies Ice Mountain as worthy of national recognition

At the base of Ice Mountain in West Virginia, near a rocky opening blowing cold air, live plants normally found in Alaska and Canada. The delicate purple twin flower. The bristly rose. The dwarf dogwood. 

It's a special place thanks to a unique refrigeration effect caused by a sloping mass of boulders at the base of the mountain. Katia Englehardt, an ecologist at the Appalachian Laboratory, identified the site as worthy of recognition and protection for its unique geological and biological features.

Her recommendation resulted in Ice Mountain being designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in September. It is one of 593 sites nationwide recognized by the National Park Service for their rarity, diversity, and value to science and education 

An hour's drive from Frostburg, Ice Mountain isn't a very high mountain -- it's only about 1,500 feet--but it earned its name by virtue of the cooling effect that takes place inside its talus—a sloping mass of boulders at the foot of the mountain. During the winter, dense, cold air sinks deep into the rocks 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. 

As a result of this year-round natural air conditioning, the rocky slopes at the mountain’s base support many plant species normally found in much colder regions or at much higher elevations.

"All of the sudden you are hit with this cold air," said Englehart. "There could be a 40 degree difference in the summer."

As a result, it was used by both sides during the Civil War to store food, and locals would use the ice to make ice cream for summer gatherings. 

"What's really neat about this mountain is the interaction between geology and ecology," said Englehart. "Most tallus slopes are about 6-8 feet in depth, but this is 60 feet in depth. Because of its thickness, it can store cool air. That geology produces a unique biology at the base where the cold air vents are located."

Thanks to this cold air, species that normally occur in Alaska and Canada exist at a much lower latitude and elevation than is common, including rare plants and a land snail.

Each National Natural Landmark site is identified and evaluated through a rigorous process – including a scientific evaluation and public comment period – to formally acknowledge its outstanding biological or geological features.

"The National Landmark designation highlights some of the really interesting and unique features we have in the landscape," said Englehart. "It educates the public about the natural world we live in but may not know about because the features are located on private or state land." 

Ice Mountain is a 159- acre preserve is cared for by The Nature Conservancy and is open to the public only through guided tours scheduled in advance since the vents and biota around it are so sensitive, said Englehardt. Visitors can take a tour to the vents or walk up to the mountain ridge for a scenic overview of the West Virginian landscape

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