The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

An Arctic Island in the Sky


1049The weather observatory on top of the “Rockpile,” aka Mount Washington. CLUI photo by Michael Kassner

THE MOUNT WASHINGTON OBSERVATORY IS a weather observatory located at a place that is said to have the “worst weather on the planet.” Though it is located at a mere 6,250 feet above sea level, it is atop the highest mountain in the northeast, and blizzards can occur any time of the year up here. The mountaintop is usually in the clouds, creating fog like conditions 300 days out of the year. The average annual windspeed is 35 mph, and gusts of over 100 mph are common. In 1934 the fastest wind speed ever recorded on the earth’s surface was measured from the observatory: 231 mph (while the staff sat inside, watching the walls heave, uncertain if they were about to be swept off the mountaintop).

The observatory was built in 1932 to monitor the weather in order to aid in regional weather forecasting. It still fulfills this function, transmitting observations to the National Weather Service. It is staffed year around, and has an impressive battery of meteorological instruments including a laser wind speed measurement system, an antenna for measuring water vapor, a snow gauge, a visibility meter, equipment for monitoring cosmic ray activity in the upper atmosphere, and COSMO, a long-term neutron measurement system. During the winter, the staff spends a lot of time outside keeping the exposed weather instruments clear of rime and glazed ice. The “Century Club” is the elite group of staffers who were capable of walking the length of the observation deck in a wind of 100 mph or more, without falling down or being blown away.

Though it may be the most isolated place in New England for most of the year, the observatory shares the summit with the Sherman Adams Summit Building, a visitor center with a gift shop and snack bar that caters to the thousands of summer tourists who visit the summit via the Mount Washington Auto Road and the steam-powered cog railway, in operation since 1876. After the summer, the staff is left on their own, as the weather becomes downright dangerous, and access to the summit during the winter is restricted to tracked “Sno-cat” type vehicles, and, in the worst weather, even they can’t make it through the eight mile journey from the base of the mountain. ♦