Winter is settling in on the summit of Mount Washington and with it comes a major shift in the protocols we follow at the Mount Washington Observatory. With the seasonal closure of the New Hampshire State Park’s Sherman Adams building, Mount Washington Auto Road and Cog Railway, we become isolated from the valley below. The only summit visitors have arrived by foot and any interactions with them is outside the building. Preparing for winter is no easy task for us as extreme conditions move into our forecasts. Our entire summit “world” needs to transition.
Mount Washington is known as the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather” and the winters here do not disappoint. For over 85 years, the dedicated team of Observers that call the summit home record hourly weather data around the clock. It is their dedication and constant monitoring that allows our instruments to survive the winter. With winds reaching 100+ MPH on a weekly basis, being enveloped in fog 60% of the year producing a high probability of rime icing, our Observers brave the weather to keep instrumentation operational. In some cases, this means implementing winter instrumentation like a taller precipitation can or the use of a snow-board to differentiate frozen precipitation types. It also means that our primary wind speed data is collected from a unique Pitot Anemometer system that was built and designed for our mountain top station.
Beyond observing the weather, another winter challenge is transportation. While we use the Mount Washington Auto Road to access the summit year round, the method in which we access it changes. As the first signs of winter approach, we begin to chain up our 4x4 van and truck and run a plow when needed. As winter conditions on the summit take hold, we use truck and van to travel the lower portion of the road before switching midway to our snowcat. Eventually we can begin traveling exclusively from the base of the mountain to the summit in the snowcat as winter reaches the valley. The difference is a 20 minute ride verse an hour and a half...on a good day.
With extreme weather also comes the undeniable need for tough gear. Working outside in high winds and cold temperatures is something we take seriously. “No exposed skin” is a frequent remark you will hear from us to avoid frostbite. Our gear is layered to keep us warm and combinations of puffy jackets and shells are used to protect us from precipitation and wind. Our feet are also important as they need to stay warm, dry, and stable. Oboz, of course, offers the footwear that keeps us moving about the summit. Even when additional traction is needed, the boots accept and secure additional traction for icier and windier conditions. Having a boot that performs is paramount.
All in all, the winters at the Mount Washington Observatory are extreme and throw challenges our way. With proper preparation and gear, our team of Observers continues recording and observing the weather 24/7 adding to our 87-year climate record. It’s something we take pride in and without the well thought-out yearly winter transition, it wouldn’t be as smooth.