4 min read

Adventures on Nunataks

High, wild, and free
mountain peak
Hiking into the lofty world of a nunatak in the North Cascades, photo by David Lukas

At first glance, the alpine zone is a barren landscape of rock and ice, extreme wind, blazing sun, and freezing cold temperatures—but one notable exception is a nunatak.

A North Cascades nunatak with complexly developed meadow system, photo by David Lukas

Nunatak: an Inuit word for exposed mountain peaks or ridges that tower above surrounding ice fields.

The remarkable landscape of a high-elevation nunatak, photo by David Lukas

Because nunataks are literally perched on top of the world, they are almost always isolated, remote, and hard to reach. This means that few people get to experience them, so I want to share this photo-essay, and love of nunataks with you.

Looking across a vast North Cascades wilderness from a nunatak, photo by David Lukas

Nunataks are very subtle, breathtakingly beautiful places. Naturalists will love this because these landforms play a vital ecological role as sanctuaries for countless species that cannot survive on snow and ice alone–and only a careful observer will notice this difference.

An exceptionally healthy coyote at home on a nunatak, photo by David Lukas

However, when we look across North America (at least south of northern Canada and Alaska), we don't see vast fields of ice so it's hard to appreciate the role that nunataks play in the landscape.

In a really big place, nunataks are all about little pockets of life, photo by David Lukas

But think further back—to the Ice Ages that lasted millions of years—and you'll realize that immense expanses of North America, including many major mountains, were covered by ice fields and glaciers for very long periods of time, with only a few spots here and there poking above the ice.

red squirrel
Finding a red squirrel of the forest in an alpine meadow was a tremendous surprise, photo by David Lukas

Because these isolated nunataks were higher than the ice and glaciers, they became sanctuaries where plants and animals could retreat and survive during periods of Ice Age glaciation—even as the rest of the landscape was scraped down to bare rock by sheets of ice up to a mile thick.

alpine flowers
One small moment of wonder after another, photo by David Lukas

But more significantly, after the ice melted, the areas that were scraped to bare rock have had only 10,000 years to start rebuilding new soils and new communities of life, while nunataks preserved fragments of the original, pre-glaciated landscape: complete with ancient soils that have been intact for millions of years; and intact, original communities of lichens, mosses, fungi, soil microbes, invertebrates, and richly developed food webs.

cryptogamic crust
Thick cryptogamic crusts like this take a very long time to form and are a sign of old undisturbed soils, photo by David Lukas

However, this is only true for a handful of very special nunataks because most nunataks consist of sheer, eroding rock with no pockets of soil. Few nunataks were flat or gently sloping enough to hold and protect soil, and provide homes for a great variety of plants and animals.

horned lark
A horned lark searching for food as I lay next to it, photo by David Lukas

The Dana Plateau in the Sierra Nevada is a classic example. This magnificent one-square-mile plateau has half of all the alpine plant species found in the entire 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada range because it was flat enough to preserve ancient soils and protect alpine plants while the rest of the mountains were scraped to bare rock by giant ice fields.

wildflower displays
A bonanza of wildflowers thriving on a nunatak, photo by David Lukas

This ancient web of life is subtle—but you can see, hear, and feel the difference when you're on one of these nunataks!

You have to get on your belly to appreciate the full richness of plants on a nunatak, photo by David Lukas

Up close, you'll notice that the ground is densely and complexly matted with lichens, mosses, and tiny plants; and looking out you'll be overwhelmed by a mosaic of colors and textures, along with countless flitting butterflies, buzzing insects, and shimmering flowers.

alpine butterfly

You can tell that this is a very special place!

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