MOUNT WASHINGTON, New Hampshire ??вЂќ For many, mid-April suggests the coming of spring, but for the staff of the Mount Washington Observatory, which maintains a weather and research station atop the region’s highest peak, the month of April brings back memories of a remarkable event. In was April 12, 1934 that the fastest wind ever clocked on the surface of the earth – 231 miles per hour – was measured by Observatory staff.
“Mount Washington is known for its extreme weather,” notes Observatory staffer Neil Lareau. “We’re recognized for having cold temperatures, deep snows, dense fog, and heavy icing – we often refer to the mountain as “the home of the world’s worst weather” – but it’s the wind that brings us into the world record books.”
Lareau, like the other staff of today’s Observatory, senses a link to the observers who weathered the world record wind of 1934. “So many things have changed in the seventy-two years since the world record wind was witnessed – from the types of weather instruments that we use, to the clothes we wear, the means of transportation to the summit in winter, the way we maintain communication with others in the valley below. But in spite of all these differences, the harsh weather on Mount Washington remains as fierce, and as impressive, as ever, and we maintain the same enthusiasm for the power of that weather, and a desire to learn more about it.”
The Observatory, a private, non-profit organization, was established in 1932 to “re-occupy” the summit of Mount Washington for scientific purposes (earlier weather observers had maintained a station there in the late 1800’s.) While at first intended as a project of limited duration, the successes of the Observatory in such fields as radio testing, weather instrument development, and atmospheric study led to the station continuing its service to the present.
“The world record wind was a benchmark event, make no mistake about it,” states Observatory Executive Director Phil Gravink, “and it showed both the fury of the elements that can rage on Mount Washington, and the dedication of the Observatory staff to accurately record and document those elements for scientific purposes. Today’s mountain staff appreciates the efforts of those early observers, and are doing what they can to emulate their commitment, even though some activities have changed since the 1930’s.”
The Observatory’s Chief Meteorologist, Tim Markle, has nothing but respect for his predecessors on the mountain. “By the standards of today, the equipment they had – not to mention their living conditions here – were pretty primitive. But they really excelled at their job; the fact that they could help design and maintain an anemometer that proved accurate in measuring the highest wind on earth speaks volumes about their efforts. They actually climbed on the Observatory roof in winds over 160 miles per hour to keep the instrument operating through that storm, and knocking ice off its guywires. That was a pretty gutsy thing to do.” Markle speaks from experience, having climbed to the top of today’s Observatory instrument tower in winds of more than 100 miles per hour.
How does today’s Observatory staff honor the Mount Washington pioneers? “I don’t think we give more of a compliment than to keep watch here, as they did back then”, notes Lareau. “Some of the work we do is a direct continuation of the work that was started here seven decades ago, such as constantly monitoring the weather, to provide current data to assist the National Weather Service in weather forecasting. The decades of such data now form an important climatological record, allowing us to better analyze and understand changes in our climate. Like the 1930’s staff, we still test weather instruments and other items to withstand weather extremes. But I suppose it’s a sign of the times that we have added more environmental monitoring to our work – working, for instance, with the University of New Hampshire to assess levels of various pollutants, such as ozone, in the air, and how those are interrelated with weather and climate.” Lareau adds that other Observatory staff are involved in other atmospheric and climate research projects, as well as with educational programs related to weather and the mountain environment.
Doubtless, on April 12, Lareau, Markle, and their colleagues will stop for a moment of thought to pay their respects to their predecessors who clocked the fastest wind ever – and then get back to their mountain-top duties in what they cheerfully call “the world’s worst weather.”
The Mount Washington Observatory is a public, non-profit organization, which since 1932 has operated the year-round weather station atop Mount Washington. The Observatory maintains an active program of scientific research and educational activities, including the Weather Discovery Center museum in North Conway and winter and summer trips to Mount Washington. For more information contact the Observatory by mail at PO Box 2310, North Conway NH 03860; by phone at 800-706-0432; or visit the Observatory on-line at www.mountwashington.org.