How researchers track weather on top of Mount Washington, home to “the world’s worst weather”


New England’s highest peak, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, is home to what’s been called “the world’s worst weather.” In February, the wind chill at Mount Washington plunged to a record 109 degrees below zero, the lowest recorded wind chill temperature in U.S. history.

Mount Washington’s latitude, height and atmosphere make it uniquely prone to extreme weather, which is why observers there collect measurements day and night, 365 days a year. 

“There definitely are other places on the planet that experience weather like this, but no one’s there,” said Jay Broccolo, director of weather operations for Mount Washington Observatory, a nonprofit dedicated to understanding weather and climate.

At a brisk 7 to 8 miles per hour, a snowcat takes 2.5 hours to reach the observatory. 

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He said researchers feel like they are experiencing weather history. 

Teams of researchers rotate shifts, spending a week at the summit’s observatory. Researchers head out every hour on the hour to track temperature and humidity.

Weather observer Hayden Pearson explained that when he goes outside, he takes a sling psychrometer (comprised of two thermometers), which is stored in a heated box. Despite advances in technology, it’s the same instrument they’ve been using for 90 years, to ensure consistency and accuracy in their recordkeeping.

A sling psychrometer is deployed to measure humidity.

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Through rain, shine and plenty of snow, observers keep track of it all – including the fastest windspeed recorded by a human on land, at 231 miles per hour back in 1934.

Observers also record wind speed on instruments that feed to the National Weather Service.  

All the information they collect and immediately log helps shape forecasts nationwide, and builds on the work of previous generations.

Checking weather instruments at Mount Washington Observatory, New Hampshire’s highest peak.

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From the highest point at the peak, you can see five states, two countries and an ocean. “Not too bad for an office view!” said Pearson.

You could also recently see the next day’s weather – a stormfront working its way in from the East.

Just 12 hours later, there was a very different scene, after a snowstorm came in overnight. Visibility was zero. 

“It’s kind of like storm chasing, but instead of chasing it, we wait for it to come to us,” Pearson said.

Mount Washington Observatory.

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The observatory maintains what is now one of North America’s longest continuous climate records. And while there are other stations that collect data, they operate without people. 

“A lot of times they’ll take that data and just assume it’s right, because the instrumentation said that’s what it is,” said Broccolo. 

Accurate research matters in understanding climate change. 

“Climate is made up of daily weather patterns. And those daily weather patterns slowly, slowly change over time,” Broccolo said. “And that’s what makes up our climate. And here we get to see it. We get to live in it, and we get to see what happens after the fact.”

“We’ve noted slight increase in temperature up on the summit. We’ve seen shorter snow seasons. The melting out of snow is occurring a little bit earlier. And how we grow food for people, how we supply water, how we clean water, it all matters. It all ends up back to weather patterns,” Broccolo said.

Which is why researchers and volunteers continue to staff the observatory. They sleep, cook and eat together, before unwinding at the end of the day. Nimbus the cat keeps them company, and video games help allay boredom.

Ultimately, up in the clouds, Broccolo says, the observatory is a family. 

“Everyone’s here to do the same purpose,” he said. “They want to be a part of the history. There’s so many hardy souls that have spent time of their life on the summit. And being part of that is really meaningful and fulfilling.”

“We do feel very proud of what we do. And that goes a long way,” he said. 

The view from the summit of Mt. Washington.

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