Not sure if you’ve heard, but it’s cold in the eastern U.S. right now.
The coldest-feeling air in the nation isn’t in Minnesota or the Dakotas, though. It’s in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and a handful of hardy weather geeks are in thick of it. Staffers at the Mount Washington Observatory, a member supported nonprofit, documented some of the most extreme weather conditions in the U.S. on Thursday.
Mount Washington towers 6,288 feet above the Northeast. On a clear day, you can see 130 miles in each direction with views to the Adirondacks, the Atlantic Ocean and at night, light pollution from Montreal. Its bald summit is home to the only year-round alpine weather observatory in the U.S. where meteorologists have been taking hourly measurements for 85 years.
On Thursday, they also performed an experiment that may make you cold just watching it. With temperatures down to minus-34 degrees Fahrenheit and wind gusts up to 100 mph, they decided to bundle up and toss boiling water into the air to make instant snow.
Not only would I not recommend doing this trick at home, I would not recommend going out into these conditions period unless you know what you’re doing.
Tom Padham is someone who knows what he’s doing. He’s a weather observer and education specialist who’s worked at the observatory for five years. That’s how he ended up behind the camera to film the exploit. On Friday, he told Earther what it’s like to step out into a wind chill of minus-89 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s a shock to system,” he said. “It’s a huge change in temperature from indoors to all the way down to 34 below. Combined with wind, that air is trying to infiltrate all that gear in your clothing.”
You have to cover every inch of skin because frostbite can set in in less than a minute. The nose is usually the weakest link, which is why weather observers always check with a partner for coverage and go outside in twos.
During the winter, it’s a week on, week off work cycle for Padham and the three other meteorologists who staff the observatory on a normal shift. They hitch a ride up on a snowcat and live up on the summit with one or two volunteers who make dinner each night. The living quarters sleep up to 17 people and occasionally fill up in winter when volunteers and other visitors are able to spend time there.
Unfortunately for Padham, his work week has coincided with the coldest weather of the year. The heaters have been fighting a losing battle with the wind-blasted cold assault outside. Despite going full blast, the temperature inside the observatory on Thursday dipped to the low 50s. Not frostbite-inducing cold but cold enough that staff wore their winter gear inside to stay warm.
It’s not uncommon for Mount Washington to be among the coldest places in the U.S. Padham said this cold snap is on par with winters of polar vortex fame a few years ago, though the wind chill is the lowest he’s ever experienced.
The observatory is no stranger to wind either. Winds reached 231 mph—well above the 157 mph threshold for a Cateory 5 hurricane—on April 12, 1934. It was the highest windspeed on earth at the time and actually one of the catalysts for establishing a permanent observatory.
Meteorologists working up there have been recording hourly data for 85 years and sending it to the National Weather Service. The data helps create forecasts for the region and is also one of the longest hourly-scale climate records in the U.S.
The long record has contributed to climate change research. Beyond scientific research, the extreme weather coupled with its relative proximity to Boston means the observatory also helps test products from outdoor clothing to paint.
When Padham spoke to Earther on Friday, he and his fellow observers living on the summit of Mount Washington as part of a week on, week off work cycle were enjoying a reprieve from the worst cold. An inversion had set in with the coldest air sinking to the valleys below. That allowed temperatures to reach a balmy 7 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit while visitors to the Mount Washington Hotel at the base shivered through a minus-20 degree morning.
“We’re probably one of the warmest places in the state,” he joked.
The staff at Earther hopes they enjoy it while it lasts.