Amazing Places

Some of the World's Worst Weather Ravages This Mountain in New Hampshire

The hut on the summit of Mount Washington was a war zone on the morning of April 12, 1934, according to the logbook of one of the weather observers stationed there. Everyone was mobilized, at their stations, monitoring instruments watching what was happening outside. The chains draped over the small building and secured to the rocks on either side rattled in the wind as the anemometer on top of the roof spun wildly. Every few rotations, it sent a signal down into the building, which observers timed using a stopwatch and used a chart to determine the outside wind speed. The readings clicked higher: 220 miles per hour, 229 miles per hour, then at 1:21 in the afternoon, 231 miles per hour. The reading was — and would remain until 1996 — the fastest gust of wind ever recorded on the surface of the Earth. What's even more amazing? This all happened at only 6,288 feet (1,917 meters) in altitude, within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, in northern New England, on the summit of Mount Washington.

Related Video: Skiers Tumble Down Mt. Washington

Catastrophic Air Currents

Wind speeds like that are regularly reserved for hurricane eyewalls or the summits of the world's highest peaks, but wind speeds alone don't portray the full power of the weather on this peak. Here, temperatures regularly dip below freezing in the summer have crept as low as minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 44 degrees Celsius) (without windchill), while never getting any warmer than 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) — what would be a warm spring day just a few miles away. Snow accumulation averages more than 23 feet (7 meters) over the year but has totaled as high as 47 feet (14 meters). Winds every day average around 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour) and break hurricane force once every three days during the winter. Summed up, it's easily one of the most extreme places on the planet.

Deadly Mountain

Mount Washington has long been known to harbor some intense weather conditions. As far back as 1870, a group of scientists set out to observe the winter weather on the summit, and the expedition quickly caught the attention of the United States Signal Service, a precursor to the National Weather Service, which set up an observatory atop the peak. In 1932, the observatory was taken over by a civilian organization and has been monitoring the bizarre winds and snow ever since.

The peak is not only known for its intense weather, but also for the weather's ability to change with incredible speed at random. A popular target of hikers, backpackers, climbers, and skiers, nearly 30 people have died of hypothermia on the mountain since 1849, and even more from avalanches, falls, and other accidents. But what makes it so dangerous?

Meteorological Meeting Point

Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the Northeast, but it's hardly a particularly impressive mountain on a global or even national scale. You only need to head to North Carolina or Tennessee for larger mountains, and peaks of the Rockies regularly reach more than twice Mount Washington's elevation. But height isn't everything when it comes to creating extreme weather.

Its position in northern New Hampshire puts it at the meeting point of three major North American storm tracks. Weather traveling east from the Pacific Northwest and subarctic regions, weather traveling north from the Atlantic Ocean, and weather making its way northeast from the Gulf of Mexico all converge in this general area. This boosts the odds that incompatible weather systems — say, cool, dry air from the Canadian Rockies, and wet, warm air from the Gulf of Mexico — will meet and cause chaos.

The mountain's location as the meeting point for three different weather patterns isn't enough to make it as extreme as it is, though. The Presidential Range (of which Mount Washington is the literal and figurative centerpiece) stands like a thin north/south wall among smaller mountains, relatively exposed to winds and weather that blow above other features. As wind speeds hit the range and are forced upwards, they speed up and drop much of their moisture.

In 1934, observers watched as a storm system over the western Great Lakes headed east, and a batch of energy off the coast of North Carolina rolled up the coast. Simultaneously, high pressure sat over Eastern Canada and the North Atlantic, forcing both systems to meet squarely over New England. Mount Washington, sticking above the region like a sore thumb, was directly in the crosshairs of what would be a world record wind.

In 2009, Mount Washington lost its wind record when scientists found data recorded during Australia's 1996 Tropical Cyclone Olivia from a remote weather station that showed a wind speed of 254 miles per hour. While Mount Washington might not still have the world record wind speed, its consistent penchant for high winds, frigid cold, and deep snow still make it some of the world's worst weather.

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A mountain this treacherous has its share of stories. Hear them all in "Not Without Peril: 150 Years Of Misadventure On The Presidential Range Of New Hampshire" by Nicholas Howe. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ryan Wichelns October 23, 2018

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