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June 29, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Visiting The Home of The World's Worst Weather

Dry and under fair skies, this self-portrait shows Dave and Tonie at speed somewhere in New England on a motorcycle round-trip from Houston to New Hampshire on their BMW R1200GS "Adventure." All photos this entry: Dave Gorham

As it turns out, I was wrong in thinking that the world’s worst weather was 300 miles of pouring rain on I-81 in Tennessee while on a motorcycle trip last week. But at the time, it sure felt like it! It was raining so hard, even the truckers were pulling over. Actually, they had already pulled over – I just didn’t realize it.

Once wet, and I mean soaked, one might as well continue on, right? So on we went. My wife, Tonie, and I were on our way to New Hampshire for a family reunion and we were on a tight schedule. Short of a hurricane, we had to keep going.

In New Hampshire, a day trip to Mount Washington forced me to reconsider my definition of the world’s world’s worst weather. In fact, they – the Mount Washington Observatory – had the sign and the data to prove it (see photo).

The sign tells the tale: "Mt. Washington: The Worst Weather in the World."

But I wanted to see more than the sign. At the Mt. Washington Museum gift shop counter, I chatted with Rebecca. If you’ve visited the Mt. Washington website (or YouTube) and watched the video about the frozen soap bubbles, then you already know Becca. I told her that I was a meteorologist from Houston and then asked if I could have a behind-the-scenes tour. “Would it be possible?” I asked. “Sure!” she said. However, before she said “Sure!” I had to tell her a little bit more about me – I showed her YourWeatherBlog and Aviation Weather Today, I told her where I went to school. I then spelled anemometer for her (it took me two tries) and that’s when she knew I was the real thing. She called upstairs to Jackie and our tour began.

Jackie is a summer intern from Wisconsin. If I remember correctly, her post-graduate work in meteorology begins in the fall. For now, she’s one of the weather observers and technicians helping to measure some of the most extreme weather on the planet. How extreme? The highest wind speed (231mph) measured by man was recorded at the Mt. Washington observatory on April 12, 1934. (Note the carefully worded phrase, “measured by man.” Last year, Mt Washington’s distinction as the location of the highest wind speed ever recorded was surpassed by Cyclone Olivia in 1996, then confirmed in 2010. Olivia’s wind speed, however, was recorded by an automated weather station.)

After climbing the tower's circular stairway to the roof level, Dave is all smiles.

Jackie took us to places not seen by the many tourists who brave the steep, curvy road to the summit. We started in the main office where the weather recording equipment is kept and where the weather observations are encoded. We moved to the roof for a look at more of the measuring equipment. She then took us up into the tower, to the very highest level, pointing out more equipment and some of the unique ways in which it’s used. One interesting example is a ladder that is “cut” in two leading from one level to the next. Jackie explained that, at times, the wind is measured inside, through the tower. A traditional “whole” ladder would interrupt the wind flow and interfere with the measuring equipment. The solution? Break the ladder into “upper” and “lower” halves to allow unobstructed wind flow. Strange but true.

Jackie also took us downstairs to the crew living quarters. On station for eight days at a time (day 8 is crew-change), the crew has a dorm-like arrangement complete with bunk beds, a full kitchen, a large flat-panel TV and a wall full of DVDs. Though the odds of getting stuck on station are low during the summer months, heavy snowfall and extreme winds during the winter can delay crew change. Good food, good movies and a comfortable setting can help ease the “pain” of being stuck on top of the highest peak in the Northeast (6,288 feet).

With the tour over, Jackie showed us to the door and we said our farewells. Our tour was about an hour and it was a wonderful experience. One, I’m sure, many meteorologists and scientists have on their “bucket list.”

Though Mt. Washington has the proof that they are, indeed, home to the worst weather in the world, I’ll still make a strong case that six hours of unrelenting rain at 50mph on a motorcycle is a close second.

Though only one of the windows (approximately 8 inches by 10 inches) can be seen in this photo, several windows are placed at the exact level equally around the tower. With the ladder in two pieces and the windows open, unobstructed wind can be measured as it rushes through the tower.

This wind wheel held by Jackie shows an ink trace representing every moment of wind within a 24-hour period. The peak wind on this wheel is 121mph.

A roof-level view of the Mt. Washington Observatory Tower. Tonie and Jackie stand near the angular red structure designed to break up chunks of ice being blown at high speed while the weather observer stands outside measuring things like snowfall and ice.

Tonie enjoys the panoramic view of New Hampshire's White Mountains from the observation deck of the Mt. Washington Observatory.

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One Comment

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  1. chuckmiller / Jun 30 2011 2:21 AM

    Nice write up Dave. Makes me almost want to travel up that way, when my back is better, that is.

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