Monday, January 14, 2013

The Worst Weather on Earth, Right Here in New England

Looking Northwest atop the Research Observatory
A surprising fact about my beloved New England is that, in New Hampshire, atop Mt. Washington, is a place considered to have the worst weather in the world. In the world. While the height of the mountain is a mere 6,288 feet (second tallest mountain in the eastern US, with Mount Mitchell in North Carolina beating it by 175 feet). But it's not always about size, you know. A unique confluence of odd meteorological placement combines to create a very strange place, indeed. The highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was clocked here, in 1934, at an almost unbelievable 231 m.p.h. (a hurricane qualifies as a Category 5, the most severe, at a mere 156 m.p.h.). 

Observatory in Springtime
Mount Washington's horrific weather is pretty much an accident of geography. It just so happens that if you plot the tracks of storms as they move across the U.S. from west to east, they all converge, thanks to prevailing winds, on northern New England. The White Mountains, meanwhile, focus things further, turning already bad weather to flat-out hellish. The range stretches from southwest to northeast, pretty much at a right angle to winds sweeping down from Canada. As they run into the solid wall of peaks, the winds stream up and over the top, accelerating all the while.

That direction of flow also compresses the winds between the mountains and whatever air masses lie above, squeezing them like a stream of water rocketing through a narrow nozzle. And just for a little extra oomph, two spurs of the range angle off in just the right configuration to funnel everything right at Mount Washington itself. A calm day up here is almost unheard of.

The temperature last week was -16°, and the winds were at about 60 m.p.h., gusting to nearly 90. Temperature wise, it gets worse. Mount Washington's record low of -60 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded on January 5, 1885. More recently, on January 16, 2004, the summit weather observation tower registered a temperature of -43.6 degrees, with sustained winds of 88 mph, resulting in a wind chill of -103 degrees. During a three day stretch between January 13 and January 16, 2004, the wind chill never went above -55 degrees.
Snowstorms have been recorded in every month of the year. Snowfall averages 311 inches per year, and a temperature above 72 degrees has never been recorded at the summit. Ever.
In Summer, ascending can be done via the Cog Railroad
Not that Mt. Washington doesn't have appealing features, like the Cog Railroad and Mt. Washington Hotel (which reminds one of The Overlook Hotel in The Shining). It is quite beautiful, however, and located far from the inhospitable summit.

If you're of a mind to visit this profoundly interesting place (I'd stick to the hotel, not the observatory at the summit), here's a lovely map. Cheers!

That's it.


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