What it’s like to be an observer on Mount Washington


Observers are kept company by the cat Nimbus and keep an eye on New England’s wildest weather.

What it’s like to be an observer on Mount Washington

View of Mount Washington Observatory. Via Mount Washington Observatory

New Englanders, who left their homes Tuesday morning, were greeted by the shocking, breath-taking realization that the coldest temperatures of 2022 to date had arrived.

“Arctic air is invading,” one remarked National Weather Service synopsis of the conditions that highlight the potential danger to those who go outdoors.

But no matter how cool it may be in the whole region, there is one place where, as always, it is definitely colder.

Sitting at an elevation of 6,288 feet, the summit of Mount Washington is the highest point in New England. And because of the longtime nonprofit the weather observatory placed at its summit, it is also a convergence of both extreme weather and rigorous scientific measurements.

The result, which has been running pretty much every hour since 1932, is documentation of some of the world’s most unimaginable weather readings. For example, Tuesday summit forecast noted that air temperatures would “begin around 30 below and then slowly rise throughout the day to around 15 below at sunset.”

Wind gusts, dictated by gusts of up to 85 mph, would reach “70 below to 80 below.”

As unfathomable as these conditions may seem, they are far from the most remarkable that the station has witnessed. The observatory is still holding record for the fastest gust ever recorded by a manned weather station when winds of 231 mph roared past in April 1934.

The fact that the station is permanently staffed by a rotating group of observers has created a fascinating level of first-hand documentation of New England’s most intense weather over the years.

On Tuesday, the observatory’s Twitter account shared an image of pasta frozen in place almost instantly:

“Living up here is definitely extreme,” observer Jacquelyn Bellefontaine told Boston.com in a recent interview. “That average temperature for January is about six degrees. And it’s also our busiest month of the year. So we see gusts above 100 mph, almost hurricane strength winds everywhere [the month]. “

Observers rotate through 12-hour shifts and review daily tasks.

“Officially every hour the hour we have to go out and take weather observations,” Bellefontaine explained. “We look at things like precipitation, temperature, sky variables or sky conditions, like what the clouds do around us, and visibility.”

On a clear day, observers can see as far as 130 miles away. More often than not, however, visibility is limited due to constant cloud cover. On the days that Bellefontaine put it, “we can not even really look across the deck, which is a 16th of a mile.”

To make observations, it is ideally necessary to go outdoors on top. Given the prevalent bad conditions, observers have safety precautions to follow.

“All kinds have their thresholds that they are comfortable with, and that has a lot to do with the observer’s experience,” Bellefontaine said. “Even just the size of the observer, you know, because one that is much smaller might only be able to go up to 90 mph wind.”

A metal A-frame built at the observatory helps protect anyone who goes outside from strong winds and ice. The only part of the routine that can not be achieved in the safety of the A-frame is the precipitation box (which must be in its own area for accuracy).

“It’s out there in the open,” Bellefontaine remarked. “When you get past that break at the end of the building, you mostly feel it pretty hard, depending on the direction of the wind.”

Under harsher conditions, observers are allowed to go out to check the precipitation box over extended periods for safety reasons.

Despite the occasional challenges of the role, Bellefontaine – who has been at the observatory for a year – said she enjoys the uniqueness of the position.

“I certainly did not expect to have such a cool job,” she joked. After studying geoscience at the University of Maine, the job as an observer at Mount Washington is in line with her particular focus.

“I’ve always been interested in dynamic environments, especially those that can sometimes look like Arctic environments,” Bellefontaine said. “It’s definitely like Mount Washington in the winter. It’s getting close to it.”

When observers do not brave the cold and wind to make hourly notes, observers have created a lifestyle that lives on top of New England.

“We’ve like a little family-style dinner, which I guess is also breakfast from the night watchman,” Bellefontaine said of meals at the end of the shift. Two observers work day shifts, one of which handles the night.

Along with trainees and visitors (reduced in recent times due to the pandemic), the other member of the team is Nimbus, a cat that Bellefontaine estimated was “about a year old.”

“He still has a lot of kitten energy,” she remarked. Nimbus is far from the first cat to have found a home on top of Mount Washington.

“The observatory has had cats since we were founded in the 1930s, it’s always been one thing,” Bellefontaine said.

“Actually one of my favorite things that I learned when I gave one of my first presentations about ours 231 mph [wind] event was that in addition to observers, there were like four cats and five kittens, I also believe in that building, and they surpassed the number of people, she added.

In addition to a practical role (catching mice), cats have helped keep observers company for decades.

“He has so much personality,” Bellefontaine said of Nimbus. “There have been times when I have come down and our night observer almost has some kind of conversation with him, like one back and forth.”

Every day, after taking over from the night shift, Bellefontaine explained what it feels like to go out in sub-zero temperatures.

“I’m like three jackets on, we have lots of layers, goggles, mask, everything,” she explained. An obvious necessity is not to have any skin exposed.

“You want to know if your [mask] slides down. You will feel it right away. “

Bellefontaine recalled a moment when she underwent a regular task of breaking up ice accumulation at the observatory.

“I remember being up on the tower defrosting in cold weather, and that my glove was just blown up by my jacket, and that little bit of exposed wrist was just felt right away,” she remembered. “It hurt a little bit and it turns red pretty quickly. You have to make sure that you are covered and in very limited exposure, because frostbite can occur quite quickly under such conditions. “

Mount Washington Observatory Summit
Observatory trainees shovel snow and rimis one recent morning and keep the thermal cabin and A-frame free. – Via Mount Washington Observatory

Even with the risks associated with the work or the strange conditions – Bellefontaine said that “whole shifts” sometimes go where the cloud cover is so thick that she can barely see the sun – observers have adapted to it.

“I am so grateful for this opportunity,” Bellefontaine said. “Mount Washington is a very dynamic place. Every day is unique, just like any weather observation. It’s something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

“It’s set the bar pretty high for the rest of my life.”

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