Ice, wind and lightning: How Mount Washington's weather watchers survive
The Northeast's tallest peak is an unforgiving environment for people and gadgets.
Jon SkillingsEditorial director
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Tom Padham didn't see the softball-size ice chunk before it hit him at 100 miles an hour.
Bad enough that it left his back battered and sore. Adding insult to injury, it made him drop the 3-foot-tall bucket used to gather precipitation — which took off in the wind, fog and blowing snow like a hard-sided wind sock. He had to chase that bucket the length of a football field, around outcroppings of rock and hunkered-down structures on the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Washington.
It's a risk you take when you're a weather observer at an outpost with some of the worst weather on the planet, where winter conditions can strike almost any time of the year. (The ice chunk incident happened in April.) A puffy parka offered some padding, but not enough.
"I had a bruise for about a week or so, a good black-and-blue on my back," Padham says.
He's been bowled over, too, in spite of his solid, compact build.
"We see 100-mph winds basically once a week during the winter season," says Padham, a studious, soft-spoken 30-year-old originally from northern New Jersey who's been a weather observer on the summit for five years. "Usually a 100-mph gust is enough to knock me over, and I've seen up to 140."
Mount Washington packs an awful lot of punch for its size.
Chalk it up to geography. It's the tallest peak in the Northeast, nestled in the rugged Presidential Range of the White Mountains. (Compatriots include mounts Adams, Jefferson and Eisenhower.) The wind sweeps in from as far away as the Black Hills of South Dakota and, at 6,000 feet, doesn't hit any barriers until it gets to Mount Washington. And as it turns out, the Presidential Range stands pretty much perpendicular to those prevailing westerly winds. That has a funneling effect on large air masses, focusing their full force on Mount Washington. Three major storm tracks converge there.
"It's kind of in the beltway of some of the worst weather," says Hendricus Lulofs, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service station in Gray, Maine.
So even though the 6,288-foot (1,916-meter) peak isn't tall by global standards (Mount Elbert in the Rocky Mountains is 14,440 feet), it gets hit by some seriously heavy weather. It averages 97 inches (246 cm) of rain and 281 inches of snow a year. Its record high temperature is only 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius), and the average for July is 49 degrees. January and February temperatures hover in the single digits, with record lows at minus 46. All of that before factoring in the wind chill.
The day before I drove up in July, the forecast was intimidating: "ALERT: Severe thunderstorms possible Monday afternoon through Tuesday evening. ... Thunderstorms Tuesday have the potential to become severe, with heavy rainfall, continuous lightning, hail, and violent downdrafts. Slight possibility of tornadic activity."
Um, as in tornadoes?
Here's how intense it can get: On an April day in 1934, the summit felt a blast of 231-mph (372 km/hr) winds.
"Everything on the summit has to be engineered for wind loads that are normally unheard of except by aircraft designers," Marty Engstrom wrote in a 2003 book reminiscing about his 38 years working on Mount Washington as a television engineer for WMTW-TV.
"We're one of the most dangerous small mountains in the world," says Padham.
I traveled here to watch the Mount Washington Observatory staff go about their work, to learn about the tools they use and to find out how they endure those brutal conditions. The observatory, run by a privately funded nonprofit, has been in operation on the summit since 1932. (Editors' note: CNET reimbursed the nonprofit for lodging and taking up some of its staff time.) Its 86 years of detailed record-keeping — "one of North America's longest continuous climate records" — make it valuable for weather forecasting and for climate research. Not to mention the meteorologists' willingness to go out, even into hurricane-force winds and Arctic cold.
Sometimes they're out there alone. That's especially true for night observer Ryan Knapp. "It makes you watch your step a little more closely," he says. "Safety is always at the top of my mind, summer or winter."
Part of the job is purely sensory: Heading outside at least once an hour, around the clock, the observers look at the sky to see what types of clouds are overhead and to judge visibility (130 miles in the clearest of conditions, down to 10 feet or less). They feel the rain, fog or snow wash over them. They listen for thunder. Every six hours, they check the precipitation bucket for snowfall or rainfall totals.
The meteorologists also need to keep a close watch on the more-sensitive gear that remains outside, including weather instruments and antennas. Blame the ice for that — especially rime ice, which builds up on just about everything, at a staggering rate: 2 inches an hour as a norm, but sometimes up to 6 inches an hour. Rime ice forms in freezing temperatures when water droplets land on a cold surface. Instruments, antennas, ladders, buildings. You name it.
Consider the Pitot tube, used to gauge wind speed. The observatory's Pitot tube sits exposed on a post atop a two-story, wood-shingled concrete turret. (You know where else you'll find Pitot tubes? Mounted on aircraft to measure airspeed.)
It's a roughly 8-inch-by-1-inch hollow aluminum shaft (18 inches total, including the tail) with small holes on the sides and an opening at the end that faces into the wind. Sensors on the inside measure air pressure, which then gets translated into wind speed. The entire tube needs to stay ice-free to ensure accurate readings, which is why the observatory runs an electric current through the tube, keeping it at about 70 to 80 degrees in the winter. Even so, it sometimes needs help from humans armed with crowbars, which they use to bang the steel stanchions holding the Pitot tube, antennas and everything else. The stanchions, painted red, bear the scars.
A small R.M. Young anemometer, another wind speed device — think of it as a model airplane, with propeller but no wings – isn't heated. It serves only during the summer months. The propeller would be too hard to maintain.
Deicing is an hourly chore in the winter, and a regular task through a good portion of the year.
"Ice is the biggest challenge," says Padham, "even more so than the wind."
The weather observers work in weeklong shifts, from Wednesday to Wednesday. Each shift has three meteorologists (two for the day and one for overnight), and up to three interns. There are also one or two volunteer cooks, who rotate in and out with the meteorologists. In the summer, they come and go in a van. In winter, when the 7.6-mile Auto Road is closed, they're transported in by snowcat, a tracked vehicle that would seem at home in The Martian.
When they're indoors, Padham and his colleagues work in a no-nonsense room with a few computer stations, standard metal office cabinets, shelves of reference material and windows at one narrow end that let in a soft northern light. They spend much of their time compiling and analyzing hourly weather details — wind speed and direction, temperature and dew point, sky conditions — and writing up weather forecasts or giving them on-air to radio stations. They also have to put up with visitors like me.
Welcome to Mount Washington, home of the 'world's worst weather'
The room has a "weather wall" that includes barometers and barographs, dials for wind speed and direction, and a digital screen with satellite imagery of clouds in motion. There are also a couple of analog Hays devices, which use a needle and red ink to create a circular, continuous chart of the wind speeds — including gusty spikes — throughout a given day. Think of it as an EKG for the wind.
A historic Hays chart on display tells the tale of July 20, 1996, the windiest summer day the observatory's seen, with sustained winds above hurricane force throughout the day (even up to near category 5 level). Peak gust: 154 mph. And snow showers, of course.
Below one of the Hays devices is a small plaque notable for its understatement: Moderate Wind Speeds 15 mph-140 mph.
When observers go outside, they bring one portable instrument with them: the sling psychrometer.
That old-school device consists of two thermometers, one with a wet bulb and the other with a dry bulb, bracketed side by side. It gets spun in the open air for anywhere from a few minutes to 15 or 20 (the longer sessions when the temperature is close to the freezing point). The spinning evaporates moisture. From that the observer can calculate dew point or relative humidity.
It's not just for nostalgia's sake. By using the same instrument and the same methodology for more than eight decades (same with the Hays devices), the Mount Washington Observatory has built up an enviably consistent and detailed long-term record.
The twirling of the sling psychrometer also underscores a limitation of digital devices in that harsh environment: For all the convenience digital systems offer, they're prone to imprecision when they get wet or covered in ice — par for the course atop Mount Washington.
In the winter, says Keith Garrett, the observatory's director of IT and infrastructure, "there is no automated system that would survive up here without daily maintenance, if not hourly."
Garrett, 40, has been with the observatory for two years. He's on the summit two or three days a week, and spends the night about once a month.
The morning of my second day there, I'm outside as Padham takes observations. Fog rolls by, often thick enough to drop the visibility to just 100 yards; the winds are sustained at 30 to 35 mph (gusting to 45 mph), and there's a chance of thundershowers. As he heads back in, he calmly warns: "You should come in in the next five minutes, in case there's any lightning."
The crew eats and sleeps downstairs from the observatory office. With its close-quarters bunk rooms and a modest common space that packs in the kitchen, a long table set for 10 and several couches crowding an LG flat-screen TV, it reminds me of a cabin I might rent for a long weekend of skiing.
Marty, a 12-year-old Maine coon cat, is a constant, if elusive, presence. Marty is named after Engstrom, the TV engineer, who became a local celebrity for northern New Englanders — like me — through his reports from Mount Washington on the evening news.
Internet service comes over the air via high-speed microwave link from North Conway 18 miles away, and has to contend with slowdowns from ice and water on the antenna. Electricity travels up an underground cable along the path of the Cog Railway, a quirky historic train line that's been in service for nearly 150 years. Two big diesel generators are on standby for events like lightning strikes.
On the day I arrive, Garrett is troubleshooting signal loss on the microwave link. The culprit turns out to be a broken wire. "Wind can wear out cable very quickly," he says. (He also frets about damage caused by red squirrels.)
Scattered across the Presidential Range are 19 nodes of the observatory's "mesonet." They're small, free-standing, solar-powered weather stations that gather and relay data by radio signal. These remote sites can't get the same level of attention in unforgiving weather, so anemometers get removed from higher-elevation sites in the winter.
In all, there are about 120 devices on the observatory's network, including four servers running 14 to 15 virtual servers. Garrett describes it as a "mini data center," designed with as much redundancy as possible.
There's always something that needs his attention. "I get challenged by something different on almost a daily basis," Garrett says, "on everything from SQL databases to anything that has buttons and wires."
Mobile service can be an adventure. AT&T does have a cellular antenna on the summit but that, unfortunately, doesn't help me or staffers who are on a different carrier. On top of that, the building housing the observatory's museum and offices has concrete walls that are a couple feet thick and reinforced with steel rebar. Sorry, signal. (There's always Wi-Fi.)
The observatory's upgrades and scheduled maintenance have to get crammed into the fair-weather months. It's the same for AT&T, says the carrier's New England area manager, Marlene Hunt. "We only have between June and September to do our upgrades," she tells me. "It's a small window."
The weather on and around Mount Washington can turn deadly, fast.
Often it's people with experience in the mountains who run into the worst trouble. They push the limits too far, hiking in winter (even seasonal gear and emergency beacons won't save everyone) or, in the spring, skiing the impossibly steep wall and deep snow in Tuckerman Ravine. Sometimes it's a casual visitor, lulled by mild conditions at the base but unprepared for a sudden change later in the day, up above the treeline.
"In this very volatile environment, a lot of people decide to go hike by themselves or climb by themselves, which is a recipe for disaster," says Randi Minetor, author of Death on Mount Washington, published in May.
And there are a lot of visitors: The Mount Washington State Park estimates 350,000 people a year make the trip to the summit one way or another.
The fatalities date back to before the Auto Road (then known as the carriage road) opened in 1861, but it wasn't until almost a century later that deaths really started to mount. It's a bad combination — easy access and an unforgiving climate.
Minetor says about 150 people have died on Mount Washington. The causes of death range from hypothermia to avalanches, heart attacks and accidents.
In March 1963, the observatory provided shelter to a pair of desperate hikers who barely made it there through driving snow and intense cold and wind. According to a 2013 article in the Boston Globe, the weather in the valley had been pleasant, but above the tree line, Harold Addison, 34, and Gerry Wright, 28, faced below-zero temperatures, sustained winds averaging 50 mph and gusts reaching to 116 mph. Wright needed 45 minutes to climb the steps to the old observatory building.
Knapp, the night observer, who's been with the observatory for 12 years, is well aware of the dangers. He once was deicing in 158-mph winds, tethered to the structure.
"I think if I had to venture away from the building for any length of time, it would have been very difficult to get back."
The conditions on Mount Washington make it an excellent place to test gear that needs to hold up in a harsh environment.
Garrett rattles off a list of products tested there. Besides weather instruments, there have been dialysis machines, tents, jackets, goggles and even, back in the 1990s, Andersen windows. He says that at midcentury, the US tested fighter aircraft for engine resilience to icing.
A few days after my visit, I spoke with Gordon Bease, director of operations for FT Technologies, which makes ultrasonic wind sensors. His company tested a pair of its latest sensors on the mountaintop during the last two winters.
"At a place like Mount Washington, the conditions that you find on the summit cannot be replicated in a lab," he says. "[It's] the combination of really high wind speeds, high amount of moisture in the air, extremely low temperatures causing huge amounts of icing, weather fronts coming through rapidly."
The main market for FT Technologies sensors is wind turbines, which need to harvest the maximum amount of power from the wind and to know when to shut down should conditions become too severe. And it's critical to avoid ice buildup.
In the sensors' first year of testing on Mount Washington, Bease says, "we got really horrendous winter conditions all the way up until the beginning of June."
My July visit winds down with thick fog and rain showers on the summit. Not long after I leave, Padham tells me by email, the lightning he'd warned of did arrive.
"In total I'd estimate we had three direct cloud-to-ground strikes on the immediate summit," he writes. "Keith [Garrett] and I could hear the 'crackle' noise as they struck, and they were fairly loud (I've heard much worse though)."
The storm system stays with me all the way back to Massachusetts. Thunder. Heavy rain. The midday DJ on a radio station out of Portland, Maine, 75 miles southeast of the summit, talks excitedly of skies that got incredibly dark before letting loose.
As Padham had told me on the summit, speaking as if he and Mount Washington were part of a team: "We initiate a lot of weather."