Visiting West Virginia During the Ice Age
For our first installment of Wild, Wondering West Virginia, we tackled a question about West Virginia’s origins. Listener Nancy Taylor wanted to know what West Virginia was like during the ice age and whether the ancient time shaped the Mountain State’s topography.
Turns out, the ice age had a huge impact on the state we know today. The geological processes that occurred more than 2 million years ago affected where West Virginians live, influenced our heritage working with clay, and, perhaps most excitingly, relics of the ice age -- from plants to places -- litter the state.
Ice Age, Explained
The Pleistocene epoch, colloquially known as the ice age, began about 2.5 million years ago and lasted until about 11,000 years ago.
“The Pleistocene was not a simple time,” said Steve Kite, an associate professor of geography and geology at West Virginia University.
There were actually dozens of mini ice ages during the Pleistocene, where glaciers would have featured prominently across the northern United States coming within eight miles of the Northern Panhandle. But there were also warm periods of the Pleistocene, where temperatures would have been similar to or even warmer than today.
To get a feel for what West Virginia was like during the ice age, researchers we spoke to focused on the last glacial maximum, which would have begun about 22,000 years ago and lasted a few thousand years.
Although West Virginia was not itself home to glaciers during the ice age, they played an important role in shaping the state.
“The glaciers did radically change West Virginia and the cold climate changed West Virginia,” Kite said.
Much of the state would have been covered in permafrost, or perpetually frozen. In the high elevations, you would have seen tundra, and temperatures would have mirrored those of central Alaska today. Trees would have been sparse at high elevations and at lower elevations, forests would have contained hardwood trees like spruce and fir, more closely resembling the boreal forests seen today in Quebec.
It was during this last glacial maximum that Cranesville Swamp formed.
Visiting an Ice Age Remnant
On a recent sunny winter day, we went for a hike through Cranesville Swamp, in Preston County. Cranesville is not actually a swamp, but one of the few remaining high mountain boreal bogs in the southern United States.
Emerging from a grove of Scots pines, we see an expanse of muted yellow and bright red grass-like rushes and sedges protruding from the surface of a boggy marsh. Part of the meandering wooden boardwalk is submerged in water. Waterproof boots are helpful if you visit.
Cranesville is truly a relic of the ice age. It formed about 10,000 years ago.
Much of West Virginia would have looked like this 1,600-acre nature preserve during the ice age, said Rodney Bartgis, a naturalist and former state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.
“When you look out across the open bog ... the bog itself kind of looks like what you might have seen in the ice age in West Virginia, but that would have been over hundreds of thousands of acres instead of a few open acres like you see at Cranesville,” he said.
Today, Cranesville is a unique remnant of a time long past. The Nature Conservancy planted the pine grove in the 1950s to help keep the temperature cool in the geological basin here. The unique geology, elevation, plants and water create a microclimate that has sustained this ice age-era environment.
But remnants of the ice age can be seen everywhere.
“Fingerprints are all over for people that are aware of what to watch for,” Bartgis said.
For example, the iconic paw paw fruit contains large seeds, too large for modern day creatures to digest. They would have been no problem for the large, ice age-era animals of the past, Bartgis said.
“Most of our plants, the flowers we see today, evolved with those mammoths and mastodons, not with what we see today,” he added.
One of the most influential impacts of the ice age can be seen in our valleys and canyons.
When the glaciers formed, they blocked the flow of water from the ancient river systems that traversed West Virginia.
The ice age has had a huge effect on what we have today. It still lingers. - Rodney Bartgis, former state director of The Nature Conservancy
Geologist Steve Kite said as the waters built up, glacially-dammed lakes formed here. They included Lake Monongahela, a massive lake that covered much of the upper Ohio Valley, including the northern part of West Virginia. Lake Tight formed in the Teays Valley farther south.
The sediment that collected in Lake Monongahela formed clay, the same clay that Native Americans and later early West Virginians used to make pottery.
Kite argues that the ice age clay legacy enabled the region to become a leader in pottery-making, priming it to later become a glass-making powerhouse.
“If the Lake Monongahela’s clays would not have been here, then there would not have been the resource to easily make pottery from both the prehistory for native Americans, but also in our early history,” he said. “And then who knows if the glass industry would have taken off quite as quickly.”
Eventually, the massive glacial lakes could not contain the water and it spilled out, “integrating into a new southward flowing or southwestern flowing drainage that we now know as the Ohio River Basin.”
This ice age phenomenon not only created the Ohio River Valley, it created many of the valleys and canyons we have today.
“There are towns like Moundsville and Weirton that are in Paleo Valleys -- valleys that were carved and left behind as the drainage changed,” Kite said. “Many of the people in Putnam County, live in one of these ancient valleys that had been left high and dry as the drainage has shifted.”
As higher elevations thawed where permafrost covered much of the environment, the land came unglued.
Remnants of this can still be seen today in places like Dolly Sods, where the shifting land creates stone polygon shapes or “patterned ground” marking on the land. Similarly, at Dolly Sods and in eastern Tucker County, strips of 10-20 feet wide boulders that span a few hundred feet long were formed as the ice age permafrost melted.
West Virginia would also have been home to some truly spectacular animal life.
“It would have been quite a quite a sight to see,” said naturalist Rodney Bartgis.
He said many of the ice age staples would have been found here, including mastodons and wooly mammoths.
“You would have seen big giant sloths, a beaver the size of black bear. We had these great big, wonderful predators [that] fed on these big animals,” he said. “A dire wolf, which is a larger wolf than is found today. We had short-faced bear, which is the the biggest bear that's ever been known to live in North America.”
He said when the first humans entered this part of the Appalachians about 14,000 years ago or so, they would have hunted some of these larger creatures.
And during the warmer periods of the ice age, Kite said, you would have also seen more familiar creatures, such as deer.
“I would not want to be tent camping with mastodons or saber tooth cats or other things that were still around at that time,” he said. “But yet at the same time, periodically, the climate would shift back -- it would warm up and the Virginia deer would be here, the white tail deer. Again, there were extreme changes back and forth through time throughout the Pleistocene.”
Back on the Bog
Today, Cranesville Swamp is no longer home to mastodon and giant sloth. One can see fox, bear, raccoons and deer.
But for Bartgis and Kite, Cranesville and other places in the state like Dolly Sods or the Cranberry Wilderness are still great places to visit if you want to glimpse what living in the last ice age might have felt like.
“The ice age has had a huge effect on what we have today,” Bartgis said. “It still lingers.”
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