Mount Washington Research Shows Less Climate Warming but Greater Air Pollution

By AlpineZone News |
Oct 19 2009 - 12:19 PM

MOUNT WASHINGTON, New Hampshire — Scientific research on 6288-foot Mount Washington shows few climatic warming trends, but greater levels of air pollution than that found at surrounding lower elevations, according to recent papers published in the scientific journals, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research and Atmospheric Environment.

In the peer-reviewed papers, researchers from the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the Mount Washington Observatory and the University of New Hampshire report that, based on temperature and snow records from the 1930s to 2006, evidence of climate change on the Northeast??в„ўs highest peak declines as elevation rises.

According to Kenneth Kimball, Ph.D., director of research for the AMC and principal investigator of the climate study, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the summit showed no statistically significant warming trends over the decades studied, while Pinkham Notch, on the mountain??в„ўs eastern slope at an elevation of 2022 feet, exhibited more climatic warming than the summit, but less than lower elevations in the region.

“Near the surface of the Earth, the atmosphere frequently stratifies, and in the Northeast, this atmospheric boundary layer is frequently below the summits, helping to explain why this region??в„ўs higher elevations are uncoupled in part from climatic events observed at lower elevations,” Kimball explained. “Thermal inversions and the high incidence of cloud fog commonly at or above this regional atmospheric boundary layer may explain the summit??в„ўs resistance to climate warming,” said Kimball, “but this does not imply that there is an infinite capacity to resist future climate warming.”

Researchers said these results, posted at, help explain how Northeastern alpine ecosystems, some of the lowest in the world at these latitudes, have survived past major warming events since glaciers covered the region more than 13,000 years ago.

While the atmospheric boundary layer may help mountains resist climate change, researchers say it also has its downside. “Air pollutants emitted from distant urban and industrial sources can rise above this boundary layer in the atmosphere and then be transported long distances on prevailing winds, exposing mountain summits to much greater levels of ozone and acidic pollutants compared to surrounding lower elevations,” said Georgia Murray, AMC??в„ўs air quality scientist and lead author of another scientific paper on air pollutants on Mount Washington, recently published in the journal, Atmospheric Environment.

“The source of these environmental challenges is the burning of fossil fuels, and the solution lies in reducing their consumption,” noted Kimball.

The climatic warming study analyzed more than 70 years of climate records recorded at AMC??в„ўs Pinkham Notch headquarters and at the Mount Washington Observatory on the summit of Mount Washington. “There are few high-elevation weather records of longevity,” said Kimball, “and Mount Washington has one of the best data sets available.”

The research was supported by funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and was performed in collaboration with its research partners, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Mount Washington Observatory, and the University of New Hampshire.

With the support of U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), additional NOAA funding has been made available to further decipher the science involved and better predict the future fate of the region??в„ўs alpine ecosystems. That research is being performed by AMC along with its partners, the Mount Washington Observatory and Plymouth State University??в„ўs Meteorology Institute.