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The Mount Washington Observatory

The Mount Washington Observatory

By Emily Senesac (emily.senesac@noaa.gov)

Imagine walking out your front door to a brisk winter morning, a strong wind hitting you as you step outside. Now, imagine that the wind is traveling over 200 miles per hour, knocking you to the floor as your door flies open. These are often the daily conditions on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the northeastern United States and the home of the Mount Washington Observatory. 

The infamous weather atop this treacherous mountain has captivated visitors and scientists alike for hundreds of years, aptly named the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”. It wasn’t until 1870, however, that a group of determined scientists embarked on a journey to observe the mountain’s brutal winter, hoping to improve knowledge of the climate and forecasting. This attempt was met with skepticism and expectations of failure by most, but the team persevered. Over the course of their trek, they gathered a wealth of information that was widely recognized by the scientific community as a landmark achievement. Additionally, these observations captured the attention of the US Army Signal Service (the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service), prompting them to take up the cause and construct a weather station at the summit. One of the first of its kind anywhere in the world, this mountaintop office remained operational until 1892 -- but the example it set impacted weather history for decades to come.

This lasting impact became clear when, almost half a century later, a group of civilians founded Mount Washington Observatory. Using modest funds from research grants, they hoped to continue the work of the Signal Service and live humbly atop the mountain, taking observations and hoping to advance the understanding of climate, weather, and Mount Washington.

All was calm on the mountain’s peak on the days leading up to April 12, 1934. In fact, a quote from the log book reads: “April 10. A perfect day. Cloudless and calm.” But it wouldn’t stay that way. On the morning of April 12, Wendell Stephenson, one of the observers, woke at around four in the morning to the sound of extreme winds -- some of the fastest he had ever heard. Checking the anemometer, he found it clogged by ice, preventing an accurate reading. With no other option but to remove the ice himself, Stephenson suited up to go outside, grabbing a wooden club on his way out the door. The wind was so powerful that he was knocked to the floor by the force of the gale the moment the door opened. Getting his bearings, he battled through the wind to the anemometer, chipping away at the ice that had collected on the instrument. Not a moment later, the strong winds tore the wooden club from his hand, carrying it off into the mountains and out of sight. 

Returning to the station, Stephenson and the others began getting readings -- winds at 150 miles per hour and climbing fast. As the day continued, the winds only grew more powerful, with speeds increasing steadily throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Then, just after 1 pm, the record-shattering number of 231 miles per hour was recorded by the instruments. In the moments that followed, the startling reading inspired nerves and doubt among the observers. They hoped that their timing was correct, their instruments were calibrated, and (most importantly) that people would believe them. 

After running the anemometer through several tests, the National Weather Service determined that the historic reading of 231 miles per hour was an accurate and valid reading.  As a result of this significant measurement, the value of the station was nationally recognized and established as a private nonprofit to observe, maintain a record of weather data, perform weather and climate research, and support public understanding of Mount Washington. For almost 62 years, Mount Washington, New Hampshire held the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded and observed by man on the surface of the earth. However, the record was toppled in 1996 when an unnamed instrument station in Barrow Island, Australia observed a record-shattering wind speed of 253 miles per hour during Typhoon Olivia. Although the Mount Washington record speed was beaten, it still stands as the highest surface wind speed ever observed by man. 

Today, the Mount Washington Observatory remains a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to climate and weather research. Though records have been beaten, and though the station is now independent from the NWS, the Mount Washington Observatory proves the lasting legacy of the original Signal Service station and a timeless dedication to meteorological observation. 

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