Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Meteorologists Ryan Knapp & Alex Branton at work in the MWOBS office (photo M. Applin)
Back Inside: The MWOBS Observers
Once we’d had our fill of the wind and fog, we headed back inside and crammed into a small conference room for a discussion on the “Science of Winter Storms” (appropriate since we’d just had a doozy nor’easter). Our discussion leader was Alex Branton. She had joined the Observatory staff in the fall having recently graduated from a meteorology program at the Florida Institute of Technology. (Of course we asked what landed her on the summit of Mt. Washington! It was actually her first time experience snow!) Aside from her duties as an observer, she is also an Educational Coordinator for the MWOBS. There’s quite a lot of information on the MWOBS website if you’re interested in exploring the science, including some video lectures featuring Alex.
The MWOBS observers work in one week shifts, each shift running from Wednesday to Wednesday, year-round with 8 days on and 6 days off. Their work day is 12 hours long with 2 or 3 observers (and maybe 1 or 2 interns) on duty during daylight hours and one night observer. The observers take hourly readings of current summit conditions every hour, and they’ve been doing it consistently since 1932! That’s quite the data set!
Each observation session involves: heading up to the tower to measure high and low temperatures using mercury thermometers mounted in a box outside the main deck doorway; determining relative humidity using a sling psychrometer; checking on sky and precipitation conditions; and, in the winter, climbing up to the instrument tower to bang the accumulated ice off of the instruments. Sometimes they have to do this more often in stormy weather. If precipitation is falling, every 6 hours they march out onto the summit to swap out large 3-foot tall, 10” diameter precipitation cans in a special mount just off the mountain summit. Its hard work made even harder by the winds and limited visibility. Having experience the 70 mph gusts, I can’t imaging lugging a big can when it’s blowing harder! In the dark!
The “Hays Graph” of wind speeds while were were on the summit starting at midnight 3/16/23. The further out to the sides, the stronger the wind. The thicker the lines, the more the wind was gusting. We arrived at around 11:00AM and the wind was in the 65-70 mph range.
Back inside, the observers record their data and formulate their mountain and higher summits forecast that are posted every every morning by 5:00AM by the overnight observer. The observations and data collected are not only important for mountain safety, but the fact that the MWOBS has a continuous historical data set dating back nearly 100 years makes it invaluable for climate research.
An instrument case in the MWOBS office containing a variety of analog instruments. Though there are a lot of newer digital instruments at the Observatory, the staff still relies on analog instruments to make their observations. The two longer tubes at either side of the case are the mercury barometers that are used to calibrate other equipment.
Social Hour & Dinner
After our educational session, it was time for the 5:00 “social hour” in the living quarters. We met the other two on-duty meteorologists, Karl Philippoff and Ryan Knapp, and chatted about life on the summit and what it’s like to be an observer. Alex took a little trip outside to gather some rime to make rime ice cream! It was delicious if not a tad on the crunch side!
Alex & Ed making the rime ice cream in the living room
We also met the MWOBS resident cat, Nimbus!
Nimbus napping on the couch
Cats have always lived at the observatory going back to its founding in 1932. The list of adventurous felines includes: Tikky, Blackberry, Pushka, Strawberry, Jasper, Inga, Nin, Marty, and now Nimbus. These companions not only help control any rodent problems, but they offer companionship to the observers during the long winter months. Some are more adventurous than others, and Marty enjoyed hikes with the observers once following them down to the Lake of the Clouds Hut a mile away. There’s a delightful book that Robin found in a bookstore in Gorham called “Cat In The Clouds” by Eric Binder with illustrations by T.B.R. Walsh. We bought one for our grandson! Highly recommended!
The crew enjoys a meal in the dining room (photo M. Ossanna)
We enjoyed a lovely dinner in the dining room prepared by volunteers Sue and Jamie, then it was time for one more excision out onto the deck as it got dark. (The summit was well encased in the clouds so were weren’t able to view the sunset.) Interestingly, the wind had dropped just a bit to around 60 mph, but we all noticed right away that if felt much stronger. Indeed we didn’t really feel all that comfortable wandering too far from the little protective A-frame by the tower door. We learned that wind can be “heavier” if it has more precipitation or suspended moisture in it. Indeed we also noted that we were acquiring a coating of rime ice on our cloths within seconds of stepping outside!
Me on the deck at night (photo M. Ossanna).
Click here to watch a video of us out on the deck at night. We didn’t stay our long!
By 9:00PM we were all pretty much exhausted and ready for sleep. We grabbed bunks in the comfortably appointed bunk rooms (4 bunks per room) and settled into for the night.
The Next Day
We were awoken at 6:15AM the next morning with a knock on the door from Ed. He’d gotten the alert from observers that the visibility was getting better and that we might be able to get a view of the sunrise. We bundled into our space suits and headed out onto the main deck to catch a fleeting sunrise with an orange alpenglow-like light below us in the valley.
The sun peaks out briefly under-lighting the clouds down in Pinkham Notch.
Back in for a quick hearty breakfast of pancakes and muffins and we were back outside. The winds had dropped to around 35 mph and the temperature had risen into the mid 20s—downright balmy! The cloud ceiling had lifted as well so we finally had extensive views from the summit. We walked around the summit area pretty much over the same ground that we’d covered the day before, but now we could actually see where we were. The views were stupendous!
Looking north from the deck towards Mounts Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison
Looking southeast from the summit with Lake-Of-The-Clouds Hut in the col below Mt. Monroe
Looking down the tracks of the Cog Railway
Robin beneath on the deck by the observatory tower. Note the A-frame to the left
My photographer’s eye was constantly drawn to the beautiful rime ice feathers that decorated anything solid. Counter to what you may think in looking at rime ice, the delicate structures form on the windward side of objects. The process is interesting: super-cooled water vapor will remain suspended in the air until it strikes something solid at which point it starts to build up on whatever surface it contacts. The shapes and forms are endless and tell the tale of wind moving around buildings and other objects.
Rimed rock with Wildcat Ski Area behind
A summertime binocular mount covered with rime
Cables holding up a tower formerly used to house a communications antenna
The rime encrusted Yankee building
Three of the crew framed in an empty sign frame. The Park takes signs down in the winter for obvious reasons…
A rime encrusted communication tower. Robin took a video trying the capture the rime being blown off by the shifting wing
On Our Way Back Down
We stayed outside all the morning until we saw the snowcats making their way up the road to retrieve us. Hustling back inside, we packed our gear and then loaded up in the cat for the ride back down the mountain. This ride took less time as any drifts had already been taken care of by the cats on the way up.
The snowcats on their way to the summit
Loading the cat for the trip down the mountain (photo M. Ossanna)
Looking back up to the summit from the Auto Road with the “Tank Farm” fuel storage for the foreground (photo R.C. Hadden)
Click here for a video from the front of the cat on the way back down
Thanks very much if you’ve followed along to this point in the adventure. I hope you enjoyed the vicarious experience. It’s hard for me to come to any kind of conclusion when thinking about this trip other than to say that it was a remarkable experience for me and Robin and the rest of the EduTrip crew. We made a bunch of great new friends and experienced what only about 100 people a year get to experience. I’d highly recommend it!
I would also like to encourage you to visit the MWOBS website and consider donating to the Observatory. It does extraordinary work that extends far beyond just recording and reporting the mountain weather.