What It’s Like to Be an Observer on Mount Washington

Local

Company kept by Nimbus the Cat, observers keep tabs on New England’s wildest weather.

A view of Mount Washington Observatory. via Mount Washington Observatory

New Englanders who left their homes on Tuesday morning were greeted with the jarring, breath-taking realization that the coldest temperatures ever recorded in 2022 have arrived.

“Arctic air invasion,” noted one National Weather Service The essence of the circumstances, highlighting the potential danger to the exits.

Yet no matter how cold it is across the region, there is one place where it is definitely as cold as ever.

Perched at an elevation of 6,288 feet, the peak of Mount Washington is the highest point in New England. and because of the long-standing nonprofit weather observatory Situated at its summit, it is also the convergence of both extreme weather and rigorous scientific measurements.

The result, as it has been running nearly every hour since 1932, is documenting some of the world’s most unimaginable weather readings. For example, Tuesday Summit Forecast noted that the air temperature “will begin around 30 below and then gradually rise to about 15 below sunset during the day.”

Wind chills, gusting up to 85 mph, will reach “70 to below 80.”

As immeasurable as those conditions may seem, they are far from the most remarkable the station has seen. the observatory still holds Record For the fastest gust ever recorded by a manned weather station, it hit 231 mph winds in April 1934.

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 in years.

On Tuesday, the observatory’s Twitter account shared a photo of the frozen pasta almost immediately:

“Living here is definitely extreme,” supervisor Jacqueline Bellefontaine told Greeley Tribune.com in a recent interview. “The January average temperature is about six degrees. And it’s also our fastest month of the year. That’s why we’re seeing 100 mph, near-hurricane force winds across the region [the month],

The supervisors go through daily tasks, rotating in 12-hour shifts.

“Officially every hour we go out and watch the weather,” explained Bellefontaine. “We are looking at things like precipitation, temperature, sky variables or sky conditions, such as what the clouds are doing around us, and visibility.”

On a clear day, observers can see up to 130 miles away. However, visibility is often restricted due to cloud cover. In those days, as Bellefontaine put it, “we can’t even really see across the deck, which is 16th of a mile.”

One needs to go out to the summit, ideally, to observe. Given the bad conditions that often occur, supervisors have safety measures in place to follow.

“Everyone has their own limits of what they are comfortable with and it has a lot to do with the experience of the observer,” Bellefontaine said. “Even just the size of an observer, you know, because someone who is very small can only go up to 90 mph.”

A metal A-frame built on the observatory helps one to stand out from the strong winds and snow. The only part of the routine that can’t be accomplished in the safety of an A-frame is the shower (which has to be in its field for accuracy).

“It’s out there in the open,” said Bellefontaine. “Once you get past that brake at the end of the building, you’re going to feel it very hard, for the most part, depending on wind direction.”

In harsher conditions, observers are allowed to take longer periods of time to check rainfall for safety.

Despite the role’s occasional challenges, Bellefontaine—who has been at the observatory for a year—said she liked the uniqueness of the position.

“I certainly didn’t expect to get such a good job,” he joked. After studying Earth science at the University of Maine, the job of a supervisor on Mount Washington aligns with her particular focus.

“I’ve always been interested in dynamic environments, especially those that can sometimes be similar to arctic environments,” Bellefontaine said. “It’s definitely like Mount Washington in winter time. It gets closer to that.”

When not facing the cold and wind to make hourly notes, observers have devised a lifestyle at the top of New England.

“We like a little family-style dinner, which I think is a snack even from the night’s supervisor,” Bellefontaine said of the shift’s end meal. Two supervisors work day shifts, while one handles the night time.

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

“He still has a lot of feline energy,” she said. Nimbus is far from the first cat to find a home atop Mount Washington.

“Having cats at the observatory since our founding in the 1930s has always been a thing,” Bellefontaine said.

“Actually one of my favorite things I learned when I was giving one of my first presentations 231 mph [wind] Competition Was it that apart from the observers, there were four cats and five kittens, I also believe in that building and they were more than people,” she added.

On top of the practical role (catching rats), cats have helped maintain the company of observers for decades.

“He has so much personality,” Bellefontaine said of Nimbus. “There have been times I’ve been downstairs and our night supervisor is almost like chatting with him, back and forth.”

Every day, after taking over from the night shift, Bellefontaine explained how it feels to be outside in subzero temperatures.

“I have like three jackets, we have lots and lots of layers, the goggles, the mask, the whole thing,” she explained. There is an explicit requirement that no skin is exposed.

“You will know whether your [mask] sliding down. You’ll feel it right away.”

Bellefontaine recalled a moment when she was going through the routine task of breaking up the ice accumulation at the observatory.

“I remember the tower was on de-icing in cold weather and my gloves were blown off my jacket and that little exposed wrist was felt immediately,” she recalled. “It was a little painful and it turns red very quickly. You have to make sure you are covered and at very limited risk because frostbite can set in very quickly in those types of situations.

Mount Washington Observatory Summit
The observatory intern shoveled snow and lime snow on a recent morning, keeping the Thermo Shack and A-frame clean. – via Mount Washington Observatory

Even with work-related risks or awkward conditions—Belefontein said that “the whole shift” sometimes goes where the cloud cover is so dense it almost doesn’t see the sun—observers adapted for this.

“I am very grateful for this opportunity,” said Bellefontaine. “Mount Washington is a very dynamic place. Every day is unique, as is every weather observation. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy.”

“It sets the bar pretty high for the rest of my life.”