A Closer Look at the Mount Washington Observatory | New Hampshire Public Radio

A Closer Look at the Mount Washington Observatory

Apr 5, 2021

Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute! Nowhere is it more true than on Mount Washington, “the home of the world’s worst weather." And thanks to the non-profit research facility on the summit, we can look at weather data records dating back to 1935. We learn more about what it is like to work at the observatory and discuss the meteorological data and anomalies that exist at 6288 feet.

Airdate: Tuesday, April 6, 2021


GUESTS:

Check out the current summit conditions here.

 

 

In a new partnership, the Mount Washington Observatory and McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center have combined forces to bring weather and climate science education to Concord by relocating, refreshing - and in one case, entirely rebuilding - exhibits from the recently closed Weather Discovery Center in North Conway, NH for display in the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord.  

Science in the Mountains is a free year-round, virtual lecture program hosted by the Observatory. Dr. Peter Crane, curator of the Gladys Brooks Memorial Library of the Mount Washington Observatory, recently discussed the first winter scientific expedition to Mount Washington in 1870-71 in the video below: 

Transcript

  This transcript is machine-generated and will contain errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange. In the midst of the Great Depression, New England's best known weather observatory was founded on the top of Mount Washington in 1932. A group of Granite Staters pulled together just enough funding so that a crew of four could live atop the mountain for the purpose of collecting weather data. Now, many decades later, scientists, they're still at it. And today, on The Exchange, we travel to the Mount Washington Observatory to find out how the information it tracks can explain both the daily weather and broader climate change. What questions do you have about the observatory itself and the information it's gathered for almost 90 years. We're talking with Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and education at the Mt. Washington Observatory. He's based in North Conway. Brian, it's great to have you. Thank you for being here. And also with us, Nicole Tallman, weather observer, an education specialist at the Mount Washington Observatory. She is on top of the mountain today. And Nicole, it's great to be with you. Well, both of you. But Brian, you first. Why are so many people just captivated by the weather?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Well, here in New England, there's a good reason for that. We just have so much of it, it changes all the time. Wait a minute, and the weather will change - butchering that Mark Twain quote there. And, you know, more broadly, we just we can't escape it. It's connected to every part of our life and and there's no hiding from it. So one way or another, that's a good reason why it's part of the small talk that we all make every day.

Laura Knoy:
Nicole, what draws you to this work and your own fascination with the weather?

Nicole Tallman:
So I've always been very interested in what was going on outside with the weather, some of my earliest memories were me glued to a window, watching thunderstorms and watching severe weather. So it's always been just a passion of mine, even as a young kid. And yeah, I went to college for it and just furthered my excitement for it. And definitely extreme weather is what I'm interested in. So coming to the top of Mount Washington, where it's called Home with the World's Worst Weather was a very good fit for me.

Laura Knoy:
Yes, sounds like it. I mean, what is it, Nicole, that sort of pulled you as a little girl to that window pane to watch the thunderstorms and made you excited enough to want to study it? What is it about extreme weather that just, you know, again, pulls you in?

Nicole Tallman:
Yeah, I feel like a lot of people look at the extremes and they almost get afraid of it, but for me it was a fascination with how powerful the earth can be. And so for me, it's not only extreme weather, but it's also things such as volcanoes or earthquakes, plate tectonics, just those crazy extreme power behind Earth that really does fascinate me. So whether it was one way for me to be able to really engulf myself in that.

Laura Knoy:
Wow, Brian, how about you? How did you get started in this business?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Oh, very similar, eerily similar story of being, you know, glued to the the window pane, but also being kind of scared of the thunder and lightning and all that sort of stuff. But, yeah, you know, it's sort of interesting connection. I mean, my dad was works in shipping and he had a degree in oceanography and meteorology. And I don't just sort of shared this this sort of interest and passion for that. Sort of like Nicole said, it's it's something that's just so much bigger than You that that you can't you can't hide from the outdoors. And you wonder how is this possible? How does this come together and happen? So it's hard not to be curious about it.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, wow. So your dad was in shipping, so you have to be a weather geek to to work in that field, right?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Yeah. He was taking weather observations and working a very bizarre shift, just like I would come to do a decade later. But he was doing it out over the oceans.

Laura Knoy:
Brian, why is the weather so bad on top of Mount Washington? And if I could also ask, is it really worse than, you know, on the top of Mount Denali in Alaska, which is way further north and three times taller?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Two very good questions. I'll try and keep the answers very brief. Well, some good reasons for why. Sort of the weather, the extremes, the frequency, the extremes. We see being the tallest, most prominent peak in the Northeast does not hurt. In fact, it helps quite a bit to make sure things stay nice and windy. There's not another mountain around for more than a thousand miles in every direction that's taller than Mount Mount Washington. So it's just naturally going to be much windier up there. The topography, the frequency of the storm tracks we see again, I mentioned New England. Wait a minute. The weather will change. Well, that's because we are in just sort of sort of broadly speaking, cos the tailpipe of America, so to speak, because all of our storm systems that come across North America usually make their way through here. So it's going to be windy, it's going to be wet and it's going to be frequently so and then add our elevation and it could be cold. So cold, wet, windy frequently with all those conditions. So combine that all together. Yeah, I'd say that's some pretty terrible weather, but it's a subjective argument as well.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it is. And we'll get into that because clearly for you and Nicole, you know what we would most people call terrible weather. You guys say, oh, that's so great. Let's go out there and measure it. Describe that a little bit more. Brian, please, how New England is what you said, the tailpipe of all of America's weather. That's really interesting.

Brian Fitzgerald:
So, I mean, if you were to look, say we use an image a lot that shows the average of low pressure systems or storm tracks across North America. And if you look over the past 30, 100 years, whatever it may be, it doesn't matter if a storm, say, starts out in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it's the classic Alberta clipper. Maybe it's a storm that originates from the Rockies. The Gulf of Mexico comes up the coast, becomes a nor'easter there, all sorts of different storm tracks that ultimately funnel up and through the East Coast. And that's sort of, you know, our prevailing winds are coming across the jet streams, moving lots of storm systems along from west to east. And eventually they run into the coast and a very warm Gulf Stream as well, which can have some interesting interactions, make some very powerful storms. And, you know, add in the fact that sprinkle in a hurricane or two every once in a while and there's all sorts of different weather events that can come through this way.

Laura Knoy:
Well, in New England is notoriously wet, too, right? So in addition to the wind, Brian, you're going to have all sorts of different representations of wet, you know, fog, rain, ice, snow and and so forth. Is that correct?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Yeah, in the fact, you know, our proximity to the ocean certainly helps that as well. You know, we're kind of on that cusp between being kind of more of a classically continental sort of climate where we're used to the really big shifts and super cold air masses, really warm air masses, thunderstorms, all that. But then we have the oceans that help, like I was mentioning, sort of power, power, some of these nor'easters that come up the coast and the right conditions allow for hurricanes and tropical systems to make their way pretty far north and stay pretty strong as well.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Nicole, I know you get asked this a lot on top of the mountain. What's the key point that you try to get across when you're explaining why the weather is so unpredictable on Mt. Washington?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, a mountain weather in general is going to be pretty unpredictable just because of the flow of things coming up and over our mountain, is it going to create fog? Is it going to create upslope snow showers? So there's a lot of different dynamics that go into predicting the weather normally. And then mountains involved makes it that much harder. So it definitely is able to change on a dime and it makes forecasting even a little bit more difficult, just keeping that in mind that the mountain is going to change the flow of the atmosphere. And what is that going to mean?

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting, and I imagine there's some difficulty, Nicole, in sort of well, is there a difficulty in predicting the weather for the rest of New England when you are in this unique spot in New England?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes. So we we focused mainly on our higher summits forecast. So lucky for me, I do get to kind of hone in and just look at what are what are the higher summits going to be doing. Let's focus on the mountain meteorology. Looking at what is happening in the rest of New England, maybe from a National Weather Service perspective, definitely helps you to understand the larger flows of things and then taking in effect of like maybe the low pressure systems moving in. What is that then going to do on Mount Washington? So we take those bigger pictures, but then really try to focus in on the higher summits.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and we'll talk a little bit later, probably about how important those mountain forecasts are for people who are considering, you know, long hikes or multiday adventures up in the Whites. And we've talked a lot about that on this show in previous shows. And Nicole and Brian, to our listeners, Steve from Nottingham is on the line. Welcome to The Exchange, Steve. Go ahead.

Caller:
Oh, good morning, the reason I'm calling is that I've also been told that not only is the a severe weather there, but some of the worst air pollution is on top of Mount Washington. From all the dirty air from the Rust Belt and stuff like that seems to get blown there. So I'm calling.. Is it true that some of the actually bad air is also on top of Mount Washington?

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's a great question, Steve. Thank you for calling both of you. Nicole You, first, what can you tell us about the air quality given, as Steve says, you know, winds coming in from the Midwest where there are a lot of power plants?

Nicole Tallman:
So for pollution, I am not entirely positive of our pollution pollution levels up here. I do know that we do sometimes see, let's say, smoke from the West making its way in the higher elevations of the atmosphere. We can actually see that being blown up and over. You can actually see that in lower elevations as well. And one thing specifically about Mount Washington I know is during the spring season, you can have some of the pollen and allergy inducers, I guess, from all over being blown up to the mountain. And so you can definitely get a little bit more. Effects of allergies when you're on the summit from the air being brought up from all over, but as far as pollution, I do not have an exact answer. Maybe Brian knows a little bit more.

Brian Fitzgerald:
So, this is something that that the Observatory and also partners over at the Appalachian Mountain Club and New Hampshire State Parks and the state of New Hampshire have looked at as well in terms of we we do know in certain scenarios that air quality above tree line, believe it or not, you think mountain air, nice and fresh, not so great in certain conditions, particularly in the summer when we start getting that southwesterly flow. And I know I believe it's New Hampshire State Department Environmental Services has a ozone meter on the summit as well. And so we do communicate our air quality alerts and our forecasts. We don't measure that directly all the time. We have been involved in a number of different air quality projects in the past. And more recently, we actually wrapped up a project looking at our long term visibility. So, Nicole, other observers over are almost 90 years now report visibility every single hour of the day. And so we're looking to see if visibility on average was changing at all as sort of a proxy, so to speak, for whether air quality was was good or poor or whatever, and saw what appears to be a pretty obvious increase in visibility over time, which might point to some better air quality overall. And there are some other research out there perhaps pointing toward that as well. But a lot more to be studied in that area for sure. But like Nicole said, it's a great vantage point. So you can tell pretty easily when the air quality is poor, when it reduces visibility drastically.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. And how do you measure visibility, Brian?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Well, let's see, Nicole and myself, all of our observers are trained to memorize landmarks on the horizon, if they're so lucky to not be in the fog, they'll look as far as Mt. Marcy in New York, in the Adirondacks, 130 miles away, And those are the bluebird days, a little more common in the winter. Or your you can see the end of the the railing and maybe the railway as well, maybe about a couple hundred feet or less. So oftentimes Nicole and others are reporting zero visibility. So it's known landmarks. It's all done by using human senses, using the same training, though consistently to make sure you're using the right landmarks over time.

Laura Knoy:
A couple more questions about extreme weather. And Nicole, what's the most extreme weather that you faced up there?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, so actually, recently I was able to beat out my highest wind speed, previously it was from my internship back in 2017 where I saw 133 miles an hour. But actually recently I was able to beat that and I saw 157 miles an hour. So that is my highest wind speed. Personally, it was a thrilling day where I had asked one of my fellow observers to wake me up when it got close to my previous record because I wanted to be awake when we actually did beat that previous record. And they woke me up at about midnight and I was up from midnight through my next shift watching the winds. And it finally peaked and hit 157 at about 6:00 a.m. when I was actually alone in the weather room. So it was it was pretty exciting and something I will never forget the sounds, the feeling, all of that.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. What does that sound like or feel like? And this may be a dumb question, but I'm going to ask you anyway, Nicole, do you go out in those winds?

Nicole Tallman:
So first off, what does it sound like: a freight train. It sounds like the entire building is going to be ripped off the summit, but it's not. We're safe when we're inside. But the reason I knew that we had reached our peak gust that day was because a massive amount of snow and ice had hit our window right in the weather room. And I was like, wow, that was that was strong. What was that? And I looked and it was 157. So definitely you can hear it outside depending on the actual direction of the winds, whether it's hitting our our weather room in here or not can make a big difference on how loud the winds really do sound. And as far as feeling it, you don't want to be in the full force of that winds. That is dangerous. And so we try to. Prevent ourselves from being in the full force. I did go upstairs and out onto the top of our tower, but I protected myself by some of the the structures that are up there so that I could hear it and I could see the wind whipping past, the snow and the ice and everything that was going on. But I was not in the full force of that just because even me being experienced up here with high winds, you don't want to be in the full force of 157 plus wind winds.

Laura Knoy:
Now, how about you, Brian? What's the most extreme circumstance you faced up there, whether, you know, wind or snow or ice or temperatures?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Nicole has me beat on that. I can't touch her wind record, which I'm awfully jealous of. But, yeah, I think we we had one day, coldest probably day in quite a while, 35 degrees below zero one day. Winds sustained at about 80 miles per hour. And to go outside it was a it was a gorgeous day. It was sunny. It was just a little a little windy. And it's sort of amazing that you can go outside and as long as you are dressed properly -- and you better believe you don't have a single bit of skin exposed anywhere -- you can go outside in that. And you could be OK for a little while. So that was someone tried to explain it to me. We have a lot of observers who either come from or end up going to polar regions as well as you might expect. And they kind of describe air like that, sort of like being in a really cold swimming pool. The air becomes very you could sense how fluid and heavy that that air becomes when it's that cold.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. 35 below zero. Don't your eyeballs freeze at that point or your nostrils or something?

Brian Fitzgerald:
You layer after layer and certainly goggles to go outside in anything even over a 30 mile an hour wind and if you don't have a little bit of eye protection. I mean, you'll be you'll be tearing up instantly. And if it's cold enough, those tears aren't going to stay liquid for very long.

Laura Knoy:
What's the weather like there today, Nicole?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, today we actually have been breaking out of the fog this morning, I was saying earlier that our observations went from being quite easy when we were in the fog to probably one of the more difficult situations right now that my coworker is handling while I'm on the phone here. But our our temperature is about 20, the lower 20s, maybe around 23 or 24 degrees. And those wind speeds are drastically lower than what we were seeing yesterday. Yesterday, we were pretty high gusts close to the century mark, whereas today, right now we're reading 18 miles an hour, gusting to 24. So those winds have dropped off, which is a little bit more forgiving today. We can actually step a little bit out of our a-frame. If you've ever looked at the the observation deck, you've seen that they have the red a-frame. Sometimes it's very hard to even step outside of the a-frame. And yesterday was one of those days. But today is much more pleasant up here.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Well, and again, Nicole is on the top of Mount Washington doing her daily work because the data collection doesn't stop. So guess what, Nicole? We're going to take a short station break and you can check in with your colleague very quickly Coming up, common misperceptions about the observatory and how the pandemic has affected observatory weather operations and relations with the public. Stay with us. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, we're traveling to the Mt. Washington Observatory on the radio, of course, to hear how weather data is collected there, what it's teaching us and what it's like to live at the research facility on the mountain nicknamed the "rock pile." We're talking with two observatory scientists, Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and Education, and also Nicole Tallman, weather observer and education specialist. And Nicole is actually on the mountain today. Both of you. Let's go right to our listeners. And Helen joins us from Wonalancet. Helen, you're on The Exchange.

Caller:
I'm very interested to know if the pandemic brought an increase in traffic to Mount Washington.

Laura Knoy:
OK, Helen, thank you very much for calling. And this is something I want to ask both of you about. And Brian, you first. We've done many shows about how so many Granite Staters, you know, sought solace from the pandemic in the outdoors. What did you see on Mt. Washington?

Brian Fitzgerald:
So it was obviously a funny year, and a challenging year, for our organization, just like like many. And lots of people certainly getting outdoors, that's for sure. No one was allowed within the weather station, it was reduced to essential personnel only for the first time in a long time. It was only our observers, no interns, no volunteers, no visiting researchers, any of that stuff. Even our museum had to be closed for last summer as well. So it was, I'm sure, a bizarre feeling that Nicole could speak to a little bit and that, you know, so busy outdoors, particularly on the nice days. Yet the observers pretty well isolated from the world, which they're used to, especially in the winter, but even more so this summer as well. And hats off to our observers, I have to say, because they've continued through all of this and have not missed a single observation during the pandemic. Of course knocking on wood here but it's a great sacrifice that they've all made to keep this record going.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. So, Nicole, both of those points, one to Helen's point, which is very interesting, you know, how much increased activity did you see on Mt. Washington at your observatory? Did you, you know, were people knocking on the door saying, can I please use the bathroom? I mean, what was that like for you?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, as Brian said, our side of things was pretty well locked down. So I personally didn't have that many interactions with the public. But there are other entities on top of Mount Washington. There's the state park. There's also the Mount Washington Autoroad, the Mount Washington cog railway, which every one of them was operating at different levels. And so there were still people on the summit whether or not we were closed fully. And so I did see a lot of people on the summit. As far as a increase in traffic, I am not quite sure, from my internship back in 2017, comparatively to this summer, I would say, generally speaking, there was maybe the same amount of people. But, yes, so there was a lot of people outside, but again, nobody coming into our weather rooms, which as Brian said, Was kind of a stark difference of us being isolated inside of our weather room and then going outside. And we do have our little roped in area where we do take our observations, but there are plenty of people outside.

Laura Knoy:
Well, so how did the pandemic, Nicole, affect sort of day to day weather collection operations there? Because as one of you said earlier, you know, there's a crew that goes up and you stay for seven days and then you go down, another crew comes up. I mean, what did you do for sort of just to keep it safe so you didn't have a covid-19 outbreak up there?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes. So we basically we are pretty isolated from one shift to another. So as you mentioned, there are two shifts. I, along with two other observers, are on my own shift and there's the opposite shift that will come up and replace us every other Wednesday. Every Wednesday we do shift change. So we're up here for a week at a time. And when we were doing those shift change, you were definitely very aware of not wanting to expose ourselves to the other shift. Internally within our own shift, we did take our masks off and we did live together, fully aware that that was the bubble that we were exposed to. And then when the other shift would come up, wiping down everything, wearing masks, social distancing, just making sure that we were following all those covid protocols, but still going about our shift changes and operating. As Brian said, we didn't miss any observations. So we were actually able to do this safely and continue on effectively, which was pretty awesome of us.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Helen, thank you for the question. It's something I was wondering about, too. By the way, Grace emails to comment that the Mt. Washington Observatory has wonderful daily photo posts on Instagram that she enjoys each day. Grace, thank you for writing in. And let's take another call. This is Olivia in Manchester. Olivia, you're on The Exchange. Go ahead, please.

Caller:
Hi, good morning. I just recently had the pleasure of seeing the new Mount Washington Observatory Discovery Center exhibits that have come to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord. We're very happy to have them here. And I was curious because I learned there is a lot of product testing, but it's done by the Observatory. I think it was mentioned that solar panel can have been tested on the summit. And I want to know more about that.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, thank you for the question, Olivia. Brian, go ahead, testing all sorts of products in those extreme circumstances you have.

Brian Fitzgerald:
We've tested a lot of really interesting products over the years. Let's see, Boston Dynamics have tested robots with us to test how they do at elevation, but also on rocky surfaces and in some tough weather conditions. Keurig coffee machines, they had some pods that I think were a little too pressurized for elevation. So they were able to test with us to figure that out. Dialysis machines, outdoor clothing, tents that might get used on Everest one day, all sorts of different gear. And then, as you might expect, weather instruments as well. If your anemometer, let's say, can measure wind speeds on Mt. Washington relatively well, it's pretty much going to work just about anywhere else. So we've had a lot of experience, particularly with that, including even right now doing a test and evaluation with the FAA, who's interested in evaluating some anemometers for use and some other very cold, windy, very icy places. So a great place for testing a lot of different things.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's interesting. And, you know, the tents and the weather gear, I would have guessed, Brian, but I would not have guessed the K-cups. I would not have thought about that. So thank you very much for the question, Olivia. Joanne in Deerfield wants to know what happened atop Mt. Washington during the 1938 hurricane. The rest of New England endured so much destruction. Now, Brian, you may not have that at your fingertips, but I'm going to throw that to you anyway.

Brian Fitzgerald:
I don't recall the peak gusts that was experienced on the summit at that time. And that's because it was not one of the highest ever, which is pretty remarkable. Certainly some very high wind gusts in southern New England during that event. But it was strong enough, I recall a researcher looking through our handwritten logs from the time and the cog railway when the train trestles, I believe, sustained some significant damage, some pretty horrendous flooding that took place during that time. It was hugely impactful to the White Mountain National Forest. Millions of trees essentially flattened all across New England during that time. And and it was notable for sure. It just goes to show how frequently severe the weather is up there, that technically the hurricane of 1938 wasn't necessarily one of those top three or four historic storms, though.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. When you go hiking around, you know, in the woods in New Hampshire, you can still see the impacts if you know where to look from that hurricane of '38. Thank you for that question. Back to the phones and Ken is calling in from New Jersey. Welcome, Ken. You're on the air. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hi. I was wondering, when you do experience high winds over 100 miles an hour, do you often have to repair weather instruments or any damage to windows or railings? And also, do you have many injuries from the extreme weather when you do your observations?

Laura Knoy:
Oh, great question. Thank you very much. Ken, Nicole, I'll throw that to you, because you said you were involved in a 157 miles per hour day. So go ahead. Thank you, Ken.

Nicole Tallman:
Yes. So as far as damage on our instruments, that is one of our main jobs up here as weather observers is to maintain our instruments and make sure that they are functioning at their full capacity. So in those high wind events, we definitely try to protect ourselves from being out in the full brunt of those winds. I know on that 157 day, I had to wait until the winds went down slightly. They were gusting to maybe 115, 120 miles an hour. And I had to go up to the top of the tower to de-ice because some of our instruments, even though they were heated, were getting iced over. And so you want to make sure that they aren't going to break by taking those precautionary measures of de-icing them and making sure that they're not only not going to break, but able to read properly. And so we try our best to be up here and keep an eye on our instruments. Our instruments are very important to us. So trying to make sure that nothing does get damaged, as far as I know, he mentioned like windows and stuff like that. We are pretty sturdy up here. We do have storm windows that are installed for our winter season that help protect our normal windows from getting scratched up or anything like that. So we are definitely prepared for the high winds and the ice flying around and everything. And he did mention injuries. We definitely, again, are trying to be as safe as possible, but the weather is unpredictable up here. So as much as we try to keep ourselves safe, there is that chance. And we all are fully aware of that, taking a job on top of Mount Washington, that there is the chance of getting injured. But luckily, I've been pretty safe.

Laura Knoy:
So I'm picturing you going out there to de-ice the equipment in extreme winds. I mean, what do you do, Nicole? Do you sort of tether yourself so you don't blow off the mountain or what do you do?

Nicole Tallman:
That is a common question. We do get asked that a lot. No, we do not tether ourselves just because let's say you are to get blown off. You don't want to be dangling there and get blown around even more. But again, we are taking every precaution to make sure that we don't get blown off to start with. But no, we are not tethered. You yourself figure out what you are comfortable going out in. So for somebody that has been here for many years, like one of our observers, 15 plus years, he is a lot more comfortable going out than in something that I might be comfortable going out in with my almost two years cumulative time on the summit. So you choose when you're going to go out, when you're going to put yourself into that situation and no, you are not tethered. You are just climbing up to the top of the tower, kind of bracing yourself with either your body against the poles. You kind of know where the wind is coming from so you can lean into it. We do use a crowbar to de-ice our instruments, and sometimes I hold myself up with that crowbar until I can get a break to to de-ice. But, yeah, it's definitely fun for me, but is a pretty challenging thing to do.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And I don't know what the wind speed was the last time I was on Mount Washington. I was really lucky. It was a clear day which was amazing. You just feel like you're on the top of the world. But it was windy and it was like a workout to walk. It was like one of those perpetual swimming pools where there's always something pushing you and you keep swimming, that's what it was like to walk. And I don't think it was any kind of a record day up there. So while we're talking about wind, one quick question for you, Brian. The observatory likes to say that in 1934, it recorded the world's highest wind gust, 231 miles per hour. Just quickly, Brian, how much does that record still hold?

Brian Fitzgerald:
We'll be celebrating our"big wind day," 87 years ago this upcoming Monday. It still remains the fastest surface wind speed ever, directly measured by human beings. It was beaten out in 1996 by Cyclone Olivia. 253 miles per hour, which is obviously pretty extreme itself. But it was it was just so critically important back at the time. We were only two years in, this is our second winter on the mountain, the Observatory, this hearty group of individuals who are really curious to see if reoccupying the summit of Mount Washington to take weather observations was a viable option, if it was really worth the effort. And we've seen and learned so much since that time. And so not only was it important worldwide and certainly lent credibility to the operation and to the goals, but it allowed us to continue on and basically bring us to where we are today.

Laura Knoy:
Well, yeah. And the idea of starting a weather observatory in the middle of the Great Depression, Brian, I mean, people had other things on their minds besides tracking the weather. So what was sort of the impetus that got this observatory started, you know, in some of the worst times in American history?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Well, it was a culmination of factors. I mean, what is interesting is Mt. Washington Observatory was not the first weather station on Mount Washington. Back in 1870, there was the first overwintering by the Huntington-Hitchcock expedition. Probably know a couple of those names because of the features on the mountain bearing their names now. And then the U.S. Signal Service for the next 17 years, they were the precursor to the U.S. weather bureau. Then the National Weather Service were up there. And so it was well documented. But, you know, funds and interest kind of ran out and back by the early 30s, there was a big push by the international scientific community, and International Polar Year, so to speak, that wanted to fund projects, wanted to push people to explore and understand polar regions. And we had one right in New England's backyard. And so what better excuse than to really try and learn about the poles, the extremes on this planet, by restarting that weather-observing legacy on that Washington?

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Well, we have a couple emails, and I could have predicted this, Nicole. I think you know where I'm going. A couple of listeners want to know about Marty the cat. So Rich emails to say, I think it's important to take a second and remember Marty and all the joy he brought to the Mt. Washington Observatory community and his charisma will surely be missed. Rich says, what is the process going to look like for selecting a new four legged observatory companion? And Joel also wants to know, has the observatory gotten a new cat since Marty passed on to the catnip patch in the sky? I knew we were going to talk about Marty, and I certainly don't mind. So what's the latest on replacing Marty the cat? Not that in some way he is ever replaceable. Go ahead, Nicole.

Nicole Tallman:
So as many of you know, we do have cats that live up here on Mount Washington, and that is not something new with Marty. We have had cats from the beginning of our operations. And so, unfortunately, the most recent of our cats, Marty, passed away, I believe it was in November of last year. And since then, it's definitely been a little quieter up here on the mountain. This is our home, every other week. I spend probably more than 50 percent of my time up here on Mt. Washington. So the place becomes your home and those pets become your pets as well. So we miss Marty a lot and we are definitely starting those initial steps to figure out a new cat, because all of us up here are definitely itching to get a new summit cat. We do want to make sure that that cat is going to be able to work well on the summit, and so we are constantly rotating out with our our crew up here, we do in normal years have many people coming to visit. Sometimes Marty had free range of the building. And so we wanted to make sure that he wasn't going to be afraid of a lot of people or anything like that. So the initial process has begun trying to vet out a new summit cat that is going to have all of the character traits that we need to make it a good summit cat. And so that is I think all I am allowed to say.

Laura Knoy:
Sounds like there's something in the works! So this cat has to be, pardon the expression, a people person, because there's a lot of people, you know, not just the public, but also the team switches every seven days. Does the cat go outside, Nicole, in those extreme winds?

Nicole Tallman:
Not in the extreme conditions, no. But Marty used to come out occasionally when it was maybe towards the beginning of the day or the end of the day when there was less people. Marty wasn't a huge people person. So when there were less people out on the observation deck, he might follow us out for an hour and be outside with us and then come back in with us. So, no, he didn't live outside at all. Definitely not. We always knew where he was, but he would come out for fresh air every once in a while. And I believe in the past, Marty was known to go on hikes with some of the observers. But that was way before my time.

Laura Knoy:
I have not been able to get my cats to go hiking with me, so that's a pretty cool. Dale in Intervale writes, What is the most surprising wild animal that you've seen on the summit. Brian?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Oh, well, let's see, believe it or not, the summit of Mount Washington is home to many, many flying squirrels. Maybe you've seen them in your home around here. They are common throughout New England and in a recent, probably a bumper crop year of acorns or whatever they really, we'll say, swarm to the summit outside and brought with them all sorts of interesting predators that normally would stay much lower down below tree line. So Nicole and other staff were seeing all sorts of different things that might be in the boreal forest or much further down. So we had raccoons on the summit, foxes, pine marten, all sorts of different animals that otherwise had no business being on top of Mount Washington.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, because my impression is and you're correcting me there, Brian, is that, it's pretty bare up there. It's extremely windy. There's not a lot of vegetation right at the top. So I am surprised that you saw as many wild animals as you did. So that, Brian, was mostly due to the new sort of bumper crop for the predators.

Brian Fitzgerald:
It seemed that way. And, you know, sort of anecdotally, there are a lot of reports out there. I mean, I hate to say it, but even the roadkill on the roadways, this was a few years ago and it was noticeable basically wherever you went, there's lots of squirrels, lots of vermin that seem to have had a bountiful year. And so their reproducing meant more reproducing for predators as well. And so all sorts of interesting fluctuations in the populations there.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Thank you for the question, Dale. And we have to take another short break. But when we come back, we'll talk about all the different entities that have interests on the top of Mount Washington, because it's not just the observatory. Also, we'll just talk about weather forecasting 101 and how sometimes it's really difficult here in New England to get a good prediction.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, what the weather data collected on Mount Washington is telling us about weather and climate in New England and also what it's like to live up there on the rock pile listeners. It's been great to hear from you. Keep your questions coming in by email exchange at any nhpr.org or by phone call. Eight hundred eight nine two six four seven seven. Our guests are two observatory scientists, Brian Fitzgerald, director of Science and education, and Nicole Thomond, weather observer and education specialist, and Nicole Judy and Canterbury emails. I recall a lot of cases this last year when the forecasts called for a day of rain and then we only got a brief shower. Why does the weather vary from the forecast? Judy, thank you for the email. And Nicole, I know there's no precise answer to this question, but if you could just talk about the difficulties of making a hard and fast prediction.

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, so as I had mentioned earlier in the show, forecasting in general is very difficult. I mean, ask somebody what the future is going to be and it's going to be a little bit difficult to come up with an answer. However, forecasting has definitely gotten much more accurate over the years of just developing better forecasting models and everything like that. But it is still very hard to forecast in general. And of course, the mountains are going to that extra element of difficulty. And so sometimes when we're looking at our forecasts, we are thinking that maybe there's going to be a line of precipitation that's moving through, but then the mountains do something that we weren't expecting and maybe break up that precipitation. So that's just maybe one example in my head that I'm thinking of, that maybe if we were forecasting for precipitation and it didn't pan out the way that we thought. Or another case scenario, we thought that maybe there would be upslope snow showers or rain showers where moisture in the atmosphere is being forced higher into the atmosphere, meaning that it kind of has to let go of some of that moisture because as it goes higher in the atmosphere, it gets colder and it wants to release some of that moisture. And so a lot of times we see upslope showers of some sort or upslope fog and we could predict that and then that doesn't happen. And so it's definitely a learning science. You are always checking back at any mistakes that you've made, understanding why you made those mistakes, maybe what what we could look for next time. But it's something that. You always have to practice to get better, and it is difficult, so,

Laura Knoy:
I've heard others say, too, that forecasting is difficult, but it has gotten better in recent years. What has made it better, Nicole?

Nicole Tallman:
So something I always like to talk about is the fact that Mt. Washington Observatory is constantly feeding in information that is then being used to be put into what we call weather models. And so forecasters are using weather models to come up with better forecasts. And the more accurate information that you're feeding into those weather models, the more accurate the weather models are going to be. And so I'm assuming over the years we've had definitely more places giving weather information, which makes those weather models better and more accurate information. The science of the technology that we use has gotten better over the years, giving us more accurate information. And so places like here at Mount Washington, we're constantly trying to feed in the accurate information to make the weather models better so that we can have better forecasts in the future.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and as the field tries to create better weather weather models, as you said, Nicole, then you've got climate change, which is kind of throwing a wrench into all the ways that, you know, the weather acts. So how are you sort of even managing that that sort of X factor there?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, so up here, we have been able to take records for a good chunk of time, I believe it's over 80 years at this point that we've been in operation. So we have a long standing record where we are able to look at the trends and see what's happening with climate change up here on Mount Washington. We have seen warming. And that's definitely something keeping in mind is that, yes, we have had a little bit warmer a climate on top of Mount Washington. And what is that going to mean for weather patterns or anything like that moving forward? Climate change is definitely something that we are looking into with our our research that we do up here on Mount Washington and also considering for our day to day weather observations as well.

Laura Knoy:
And so while we're talking about climate, Brian, I did want to ask you, as you know, weather scientists nationwide are now engaged in an effort to update what's considered normal due to climate change. So, for example, if a news person giving the weather says we'll have above normal temperatures today, there's a redefinition going on as to what that normal is. What insights do you have here, Brian?

Brian Fitzgerald:
It's always funny when we use the word what is what is normal or typical or usual, we're actually talking about a pretty specific thing when it comes to climate normals, so to speak, their 30 year averages, the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of NOAA, put these out every 10 years. They update them every 10 years. And so 2020 just completed. And in fact, next month, Mount Washington, along with thousands of stations, almost 10,000 stations across the country, will be receiving their new averages that have been computed that will help us see what the the new normal is, so to speak. And so for Mount Washington, I know where while we actually already have this data in-house, we're really interested to see how the normal has shifted over time. And so from one period of 1981 to 2010, that will be looking at 1991 through 2020. And based on what we've measured on Mount Washington, what we've studied, what we've seen elsewhere in the region, we will expect to see warmer temperatures on average. So that will be the baseline, the new normal that we'll reference. We're likely to see higher precipitation even in our own almanac data. We're going to see those more intense rainfall or even snowfall events if it's cold enough. And so a lot of these things that we've already seen in our changing climate are now going to be part of that new normal. So it's it's a funny thing when we kind of shift what normal means and and that we actually are talking specifically about a 30 year chunk of time.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, it is kind of funny. And maybe that's a whole 'nother discussion, Brian. Just the idea of saying temperatures will be five degrees above normal, but that normal is hotter or wetter than it used to be. So there's a lot embedded in that. Here's a question from Tom in Rye. And I know, Brian, you want to talk about this. Tom asks, Can your guests talk about the ownership of the top of Mount Washington? As I recall, it is very convoluted as to who owns what. I believe the COG Railway, Dartmouth College and others all lay claim to parts of the top. Is that still the case? Tom, thank you so much. It's a great question. Go ahead, Brian.

Brian Fitzgerald:
Yeah, the answer is a whole another show unto itself, I'm sure. But briefly, it's been a long and complicated sort of ownership and involvement process. But there there are a lot of stakeholders on Mount Washington, no question, Mt. Washington Observatory, we are just one where a private nonprofit that's operated since 1932. So a relatively short history of people on Mount Washington. New Hampshire State Parks, so they are the owners, they they own the top of Mount Washington right there on the summit cone. And it's been that way since the 60s. They took it over from Dartmouth. And there is all sorts of other ownerships in the past. So New Hampshire State Parks, they are they operate Mount Washington State Park at the summit. There's White Mountain National Forest. So the federal Forest Service that surrounds the state park, there's the private Mt. Washington Auto Road that owns its own right of way and roadway up to the up to the mountain. Same thing on the west side. Mount Washington Cog Railway, Appalachian Mountain Club maintains trails, Cumulus Media who operate communications equipment, all sorts of groups, many, many more that are all on the summit. And so it takes a lot of partnership, strong communication when we all have so many different interests on the mountain. So the observatory being just just one up there on the mountain.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So the National Forest, the White Mountain National Forest, the Cog is a private entity. You guys are a nonprofit. And Mt. Washington itself at the top is a state park. Is that what you said, Brian?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Yeah, absolutely. And something that perhaps the state doesn't get enough credit for, because they operate this isolated park that you need to move through either a private entity to get to or you got to go through the national forest, whatever it takes. And so they've been operating the mountain. And in fact, they are they are the landlord, so to speak. They own the Mount Washington, the Sherman Adams Summit Visitor Center, of which we only occupy a small portion of. And we operate the museum there in the basement as well, but yeah, now Washington State Park, they they have folks who are up the whole year round, just like our observers, to help maintain the building and aid in power generation, all sorts of different things, communications. So certainly the the unsung heroes up there who helped keep the the lights on, so to speak, or I guess more literally.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and just a quick technical question for you, Brian. So you said the observatory is actually a nonprofit research entity. So where does the funding come from for that?

Brian Fitzgerald:
Oh, anywhere we can get it. We have a contract with the National Weather Service. We are not part of the National Weather Service, but we do a contract with them to provide our high quality data. We are a member-supported organization, so we have thousands of members who help support us on an annual basis. And even more frequent than that, we host fundraisers like our Seek the Peak annual fundraiser that has traditionally been hikeathon. This year we're expanding out to a large outdoor expo every year in July. That's July 16, 17 of this year. Program fees from our our museum, program fees or other programs that we operate, grants all sorts of different ways to help support the operations. It's costly, as you might expect, to run a mountain top weather station.

Laura Knoy:
Well, right. Especially at the home of the world's worst weather and all the challenges around that. Steven writes, With more tourism every year, has there been an increase in trash being left behind? As we all know, there have been a lot of issues in 2020 regarding trash left behind the rest of the Mount Washington Valley and yes, my gosh, we heard from so many listeners about that this year as people came up during the pandemic, you know, hoping for a little respite, but not really sure about the outdoor etiquette there. What have you noticed, Nicole? And given all the different entities that do have interests on the top, how do you decide who picks up the trash?

Nicole Tallman:
Yes, so that is definitely more of the state park realm where they would be the grounds keepers to the summit. I have seen people that come up and leave their trash and if I see it, I will pick it up. But I mainly am just on the weather deck when I go outside, which is right outside of our office space. We go upstairs one level, we go outside and we're able to take our observations right there. And so I'm mostly in and out just right there. So I haven't seen the whole scale of the summit of Mount Washington to talk on whether or not there is more or less this year. There always are a few pieces of trash that are on the summit. And so I definitely try to do my part and pick it up when I see it. But again, that is more of the state park side of things as well.

Laura Knoy:
And so, Nicole, again, this schedule of, you know, up seven days and then down seven days. In the wintertime, which lasts a long time up there in Mount Washington, how do you get back and forth?

Nicole Tallman:
So we all are going to drive from our houses to the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road, when we get to the base of the Auto Road, we all pack all of our gear, groceries, everything we need for the week into our snowcat. And depending on the ice coverage, we would be taking the snowcat from the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road to the summit, or right now when we are slightly melting out and have the opportunity to just take a van from the base with chains on the tires up to about halfway up the road, I believe, is where our snowcat is right now, transition into the snowcat, and then go to the top in that. And so it's definitely a journey getting to the summit of Mount Washington in the wintertime. What normally can be about a half hour drive in the summer can be upwards of six hours one way in the snowcat.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, my gosh. Wow, that's a long trip. Do you measure, you know, when the road is clear or when the snow is melted, Nicole, kind of like they measure ice out on Lake Winnipesaukee?

Nicole Tallman:
We would just observe it as we're going up and down. The state park also uses the Mount Washington Auto Road as well and has shift chains more frequently than we do. And so as a team up here, we definitely evaluate what's going on on the summit. And we do also have our mesonet stations that are going up the road and we're able to look at the temperature of the road. So our mesonet is a collection of different sensors that we have going up the road and we can look at the temperatures and that definitely will give us an insight on whether or not there would be melting at certain locations or not.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. OK, well, there's a lot more we could have talked about, but we will close it out for today. Nicole, it's been great to talk to you. That's Nicole Tallman, weather observer and education specialist at the Mt. Washington Observatory, from which she joined us today. Brian, thank you as well. That's Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and education at the Mt. Washington Observatory. Today's show was produced by an NPR News host and exchange producer, Jessica Hunt. Thanks for being with us, everybody. This is The Exchange on NHPR.