Nunatak is from an Inuktitut (Inuit Eskimo) word, nunataq, meaning “something prominent standing alone” or, more prosaically, “lonely peak.” (In the Iñupiaq language of the Iñupiat, who live on the Alaska coastal plain far from mountainous terrain, nunataq refers primarily to a cache of meat in the ground.) In its Anglicized form, the word refers to an isolated island of bedrock jutting out from a sea of glacial snow and ice. Nunataks are landforms that existed before glaciation, and within North America they are scattered in Alaska and Canada, and throughout the high-altitude, glacier-bound landscapes of the Rocky Mountains. One might think that these rock outcroppings sequestered in ice would be barren of life, but they have been found to be refuges for a diversity of species. Researchers studying nunataks in Canada’s Yukon Territory have found miniature meadows and gardens of sedges, moss campion, mountain heather, tiny poppies, saxifrages, daisies, and other plants that host rare insects and a species of wolf spider and attract occasional butterflies. The collared pika, a tough little mammal, has also found its way to these nunataks and made them home. All too often, nunataks are the final resting place for straying migratory birds seeking an oasis in vast stretches of snow.

Carolyn Servid