There is a long history of monitoring weather on top of Mount Washington with the first group of determined scientists starting an expedition in 1870. Despite the predicted failure, the group gathered valuable observations and a weather station was on the summit until 1892. Decades later in 1932 the Mount Washington Observatory was established by Bob Monahan, Sal Pagliuca, Alex MacKenzie, and Joe Dodge. Two years later on April 12, 1934 the men proved the importance of the observatory when they recorded the world’s fastest surface wind speed ever observed by man at 231 mph! Following this event the Mount Washington Observatory became an established private, non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining a record of weather data, performing weather and climate research, and to foster a public understanding of the mountain and its environment.
I was fortunate to receive the opportunity to travel up to the Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS) with my dad as part of a joint birthday present from my mom. We joined a group of six other people in the adventure of a lifetime. On Saturday, February 28, 2015 the eight of us met in the parking lot of the Mount Washington Auto Road to receive a debriefing on the days activities, get to know one another, and walk down to the maintenance garage where the snow cat is kept.
Slim was our snow cat operator, and has been working with the MWOBS as their snow cat operator and mechanic for the last seven years. It was thrown around a few times that Slim could drive the auto road with his eyes closed. I have no doubt he could because he’s completed over 400 trips since he started. It was nice to know we were in experienced hands. In addition to Slim, Sam was our education trip leader for the trip. She has previous experience working with the observatory in their museum and now works in the Weather Discovery Center at the base of the mountain. Our second trip leader was Mark Van Baalen a geologist at Harvard University. The theme of the education (or edu) trip was climate change: how climate has changed, how it is predicted to change, and how MWOBS plays a role in climate research.
After filling out some final paper work we loaded our gear and selves into the snow cat and started the 8-mile journey up the auto road. The first four miles of the auto road are groomed because there are daily snow coach trips for tourists. A snow coach is basically a 12-passenger van, but instead of tires each wheel has tracks similar to the snow cat. We passed a few snow couches on the way up and down from the summit and everyone was taking pictures as the snow cat drove by. The trip up the auto road took a few hours and included two stops to get out and walk around. At the first stop we learned about how the presidential mountains were formed and how streams and glaciers helped create some of the defining features. The second stop overlooked the east and a few ski hills like Wildcat. We talked more about specific rock formations including the affectionately names ‘squiggley rocks.’ These rocks were a result of marine sand and sediments being compressed and folded overtime and now have the ‘squiggley’ appearance. Our final stop was at the summit and MWOBS.
Once arriving the first task was to get some lunch, a safety briefing, and a tour of the facility. MWOBS shares the building with NH State Parks and the building is split between the two organizations. Each has separate work, living, cooking, and sleeping quarters in the basement of the observatory. To get to our living quarters you have to walk through the weather room and down a set of spiral stairs. There is not heat in the stairwell and the small windows have ice crystals covering them. Overall the facility felt like a maze with lots of doors, hallways, and rooms. Our observatory guide showed us the emergency exits and it was hard to keep track of all of them. I’m happy I didn’t need to test my knowledge of the exits during our stay.
After lunch we all suited back up into our outdoor gear and headed outside. Our first stop was the top of the observation tower that typically only MWOBS have access too. We traveled up a flight of spiral staircase and then two ladders before reaching the top. On top of the tower there is equipment to measure temperature, wind speed, wind direction, etc. Most of the observations are conducted using this equipment. Because we were fortunate enough to have such a clear day on top of Mount Washington we could see for over 110 miles!
After spending time in the tower we headed wandered around the summit learning about the different buildings on the property. There is a replica of the original shack where Bob Monahan, Sal Pagliuca, Alex MacKenzie, and Joe Dodge lived and recorded the 231 mph winds. The building is chained to the summit to show how it was held in place back in 1932.
We also learned more about how the observers collect data on precipitation (snow and rain) through the use of a precipitation can. When precipitation is falling the can is collected every 6 hours. The contents are then measured, melted if necessary, and then weighed. The precipitation can is out in the open away from buildings to keep blowing snow from collecting in the can. But this means that in 100+ mph winds the observers have to brave the elements to get to the can. In the summit museum there is a video of one of the observers collecting the precipitation can in 100 mph and it was amazing that he was able to complete the task despite the conditions.
We then headed inside to listen to Mark give a lecture about climate science and how it relates to climate change. He talked about a number of topics related to climate science including the role of climate models, how the models are produced, and the limitation of the models. Unfortunately there is still a lot to be learned about how clouds form which is a major limitation of the climate models. For example, models can predict increasing temperatures and thus increasing evaporation, but after that the model begins to make assumptions about cloud formation that do not accurately represent climate. If clouds are formed from the increase evaporation the Earth will be more reflective and thus begin to cool, but if clouds do not form and water vapor is instead suspended in the atmosphere the Earth will continue to warm. It’s these complications that limit the efficacy of climate models.
Fortunately many of the observers at MWOBS are working on their own research to help inform climate models and make better predictions about climate. MWOBS provides these observers and researchers with a lab to test their predictions and a support system to bounce their ideas off of. I was pleasantly surprised to see that MWOBS goes beyond weather observations, and that observers are taking advantage of their time at the observatory to move climate science forward.
After Mark’s lecture, we had a private tour of the weather room where the observers spend roughly the day in 12-hour shifts taking observations every hour. They record temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and pressure from instruments on the tower that are hooked up to the weather room. Additional observations require an observer to go outside to the observation deck. These include visibility, precipitation, and blowing vs. falling snow. Observations are taken from a single location on the observation deck marked by a white ‘X’ on the tiles (see below). Following each observation they have roughly 7-minutes to report out to a number of sources who provide hourly weather conditions to the public. From the sounds of it, there is mostly paper work to be completed between observations. During the day there are roughly three observers and one intern who do all of the work, then at night it’s one observers job to do it all.
The rest of the day was spent taking small excursions around the summit and experiencing the weather first hand. We all gathered on the observation deck to watch the sunrise and experience the ever-increasing winds. By sunset the winds were exceeding 50 mph sustained.
Next we had dinner and a social hour to get to know more about the people who work at MWOBS and to get to know the other people in our group. We all shared stories of places we’ve been or would like to go, extreme weather events we had experienced, among other stories. After dinner a few of us decided to go back up to the tower to see the summit at night. It was beautiful, but unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures this time. We could see many of the surrounding ski hills including Wildcat, Loon, Bretton Woods and cities and towns. Then it was time to retire for the night in our bunk rooms.
Sunday morning started early with a 6 AM wake up call to see the sunrise. Fortunately we had a great view from inside the observatory and didn’t need to suit back up to watch the sunrise. Below are a few pictures of the sun coming up over the east.
After the sunrise we had breakfast. After eating biscuits and sausage gravy we all decided we needed to walk off some of the food we had just eaten and decided to take a small hike around the summit again. This time we traveled in front of the observatory and down the auto road a bit. Weather on Sunday wasn’t quite as clear as it had been the previous day and the clouds started to roll in.
Following the hike we finished the second part of the climate change discussion. The focus for the afternoon was on how climate change is talked
about among country leaders and how people continue to talk past each other. During the presentation I kept thinking about the great local work being conducted in the Piscataqua Region. How communities like Rye, Hampton, Hampton Falls, Seabrook, Exeter, and Dover among others are looking at how climate change is impacting their communities and working together to adapt and build resiliency. When climate change is discussed at the global scale I often get discouraged because policies are watered down to reach a consensus. Local action is far more affective at making changes to planning and policy today and it’s already happening right here at home. Hopefully the momentum of climate change adaptation will only continue here in the Piscataqua Region and other regions across NH and the United States can use these success stories as inspiration for climate adaptation in their communities.
Shortly after the presentation we had a quick lunch and packed up all of our gear to head back down the auto road. Overall it was a fantastic experience and a once in a lifetime chance to see how scientists at MWOBS are contributing to climate science every day. I hope to have the privilege to go back some day.