Can climate change defrost Ice Mountain Preserve?
Tue, Mar 24 2009 at 5:21 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
Bunchberry is commonly found from Alaska to Newfoundland. It’s unable to survive in soils warmer than 65 degrees. Moose love it. So what’s it doing at the base of a mountain in the lowlands of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle?
Ice Mountain gets its name from the refrigeration effect that takes place inside its talus – a sloping mass of debris at the foot of a mountain. In cooler months, dense, cold air sinks deep into the talus, forming ice masses inside. As the weather warms up, the cooler air flows out of vents among the rocks at the bottom of the slope.
"We see a collection of boreal plants growing around these cool air vents," says Amy Cimarolli, conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. "The air coming out is, on average, about 35 degrees." But scientists are concerned that a warming climate could break this natural air conditioning system and impact the ecological rarities that survive here.
"A hotter and drier climate would certainly stress these species that like it cool and relatively moist," Cimarolli says. It’s not just climate change that threatens these natural communities. In recent years an influx of non-native invasive species has taken root at the small preserve.
"Species like garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass and tree of heaven compete directly with native plants for space and other habitat resources," Cimarolli says. "Now, we’re worried we’ll see even more of them come in the wake of the damage caused by a big storm earlier this year."
In June 2008, a tornado ripped through Ice Mountain, uprooting stands of white pine and oaks, disturbing forest soils and creating conditions in which exotic plants thrive. "Natural disasters can be a big stress to a forest system or rare plant community like this, especially when we’re talking about a small area where one storm can severely impact a large portion of land," Cimarolli explains. "It’s one reason the Conservancy strives to protect large forest areas."
It’s heating up
Taken alone, invasive species and natural disasters pose huge concerns to conservationists, whose goal is to maintain the ecological integrity of a site. Add a warming climate to the mix and the problem is compounded.
"A biologically diverse ecosystem is going to be more resilient in the face of climate change," Cimarolli explains. "Decreasing biodiversity can weaken a forest system, stripping it of its productivity and structure over time."
For now, the Conservancy will continue to dedicate itself to controlling the invasion of non-native plants at the preserve and supporting the work of university researchers, who regularly monitor cool air flows at the mountain and study the rare plants. But Cimarolli says that climate change renders the future of Ice Mountain unclear. "It remains to be seen how the cool air flow from the ice vents and the rare plant populations will hold up in the face of a changing climate."
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.