Nunataks: Glacial Islands

Caitlin Dempsey


In a sea of white in areas cover by ice, snow, or glaciers, nunataks stand out across the landscape. Found in polar regions and high-altitude areas, Nunataks are unique geological formations that rise above ice sheets or glaciers, creating isolated mountain peaks that appear as islands in a sea of ice.

Early polar explorers, such as Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, often used nunataks as navigational aids and markers for mapping the vast icy landscapes.

What are nunataks?

The term “nunatak” originates from the Inuit language, meaning “lonely peak.” Nunataks form when mountain summits protrude above the ice surface, remaining exposed despite the surrounding glacial coverage. Also known as glacial islands, these formations are most commonly found in polar regions, such as Antarctica and Greenland, as well as in high-altitude areas with extensive glaciation, like the Himalayas, Andes, and the Rocky Mountains.

How do nunataks form?

Nunataks are typically the result of long-term geological processes. As glaciers advance, they erode the landscape, but some peaks remain above the ice due to their elevation. The dark coloring of these rocks stands out in stark contrast against the ice-covered terrain.

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A rocky outcrop of a mountain completely surrounded by glaciers.
A mountain peak completely surrounded by glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Refugia for senstitive species

Nunataks serve as isolated habitats, known as refugia, in otherwise inhospitable icy environments. These rocky outcrops can support unique ecosystems, hosting a variety of plant and animal species adapted to extreme conditions. Due to their isolation, the flora and fauna found on nunataks often differ significantly from those in surrounding areas, making them critical for studying evolution, adaptation, and biodiversity.

One notable example is the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), which are among the few flowering plants that can survive in Antarctica. These plants, found on nunataks, have adapted to withstand freezing temperatures, strong winds, and limited nutrient availability. Similarly, nunataks in the Arctic host mosses, lichens, and small invertebrates that are specially adapted to the harsh conditions.

The isolation of nunataks also makes them important refugia for species during periods of climatic extremes. The Nunatak Theory is a concept in biogeography and glacial geology that explains the survival and distribution of flora and fauna during and after glacial periods.

This theory proposes that during glacial maxima, when ice sheets were at their peak, nunataks provided ice-free habitats where species could survive. As glaciers retreated, these species dispersed from their nunatak refuges, recolonizing newly exposed areas. The Nunatak Theory has been proposed for understanding patterns of species distribution and recolonization following glacial periods.

Geography of nunataks

Nunataks are primarily found in polar regions such as Antarctica and Greenland, where they protrude above extensive ice sheets. They are also present in high-altitude areas with significant glaciation, including the Himalayas, Andes, and the Rocky Mountains.

Photograph showing glacial features on a mountain.
An annotated photograph of Mount Douglas in Alaska showing glacial features including a nunatak. Photo: NPS, public domain.
  1. Antarctica: The Transantarctic Mountains, which stretch across the continent, host numerous nunataks. These peaks, such as Mount Erebus and the Ellsworth Mountains, offer vital insights into the geological and climatic history of Antarctica.
  2. Greenland: The Greenland Ice Sheet features several prominent nunataks, including the Watkins Range and the Schweizerland Mountains. These formations provide valuable information about the ice sheet’s dynamics and the underlying geology.
  3. Himalayas: High-altitude nunataks in the Himalayas, such as those in the Karakoram Range, are crucial for studying the region’s glacial history and the impact of climate change on Himalayan glaciers.
  4. Rocky Mountains: Nunataks in the Rocky Mountains, like those in the Columbia Icefield, offer a unique perspective on the glaciation and geological history of North America’s mountainous regions.
  5. Andes: The Andes Mountains in South America host nunataks that provide insights into the glaciation and tectonic activity of this geologically active region.
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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.