Mountaintop Meteorology Mixes High, Low-Tech Tools
ATOP MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- Jim Salge pulls on two coats and trudges out into the 70 mph wind, scanning the skies and slowly swinging a pair of thermometers.
The 24-year-old meteorologist is one of a team of four observers who man the Mount Washington Observatory. Every hour, every day, they brave the elements to record weather conditions outside their station, 6,288 feet above sea level.
Located some 130 miles north of Boston, the station has been tracking the weather above New England continuously for more than 70 years. In April 1934, it recorded a 231-mile-per-hour wind gust that remains a world record for a land-based weather station.
Today the station supplies weather forecasts for much of New England, as well as feeding data to scientists studying climate change.
At their desks, the observers are surrounded by computers and electronics that allow them to measure and predict the weather and transmit their findings and forecasts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks weather conditions around the United States.
But when they step out onto the observatory's deck, which is wind-swept all of the year and caked with ice through the winter, Salge and the other observers rely on a low-tech approach. To determine visibility -- key data for aviation -- they look for landmarks, like the Atlantic Ocean, which on reasonably clear days can be seen 70 miles to the southeast. They also estimate cloud cover and use simple devices, like the pair of thermometers, to calculate humidity.
"It's what works," said Salge. "Some of it dates to the 1950s and some of it is cutting edge."
During the daytime, the observers spend a lot of time with crowbars in their hands, banging ice off the high-tech equipment.
"For most of the weeks, you just feel like a monkey with a crowbar, which is really one of the most fun parts of being up here," said Salge, of Jackson, New Hampshire.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Ken Rancourt, the director of summit operations, said he's seen a lot of technological change since he started work on the mountain in 1979. The Internet has made communication with the outside world much easier.
But one constant has been that few of the gadgets developed to measure temperature, wind speed and moisture stand much chance against the mountain conditions without human backup.
"I don't know of any devices that would work in the environment on top of Mount Washington without some kind of manual intervention," said Rancourt, 56.
When testing out a new device, Rancourt said, "We wait for the right weather, when it's bad but not terrible."
For instance, the observatory is testing a new device to measure relative humidity. Called a "chilled mirror hygrometer," the device uses optical instruments to measure moisture buildup on a glass panel. However, particularly at the freezing point, the device can be balky, Salge said.
Beyond reliability, the observatory has found another benefit to continuing to use the same methods to measure weather conditions. Using the same methods over decades has made their data more consistent for researchers looking to track long-term climate change.
"There are not very many places in the world where meteorological measurements have been made at high elevations above sea level over a long period of time, for obvious reasons. It's difficult to do that sort of thing," said Alex Pszenny, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire, who serves as the observatory's chief scientist. "It's one of the longest records in North America for a site like that."
Looking back over the 70 years of data, Pszenny found that average temperatures atop the mountain rose 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.3 degrees Celsius).
That finding reflects the trend across New England, said Cameron Wake, a UNH climatologist. His figures show that regional average winter temperatures have risen about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees C) since 1970.
"That's about three times the global average wintertime temperature increase," Wake said.
This winter has been a particularly warm one on the summit, with less snow cover than usual. The conditions have posed some new challenges for the observatory. For instance, the snow tractor the crews use to climb to the summit cannot descend all the way to the base of the mountain since there is little snow there. So the crews start the climb in a pickup truck, switching to the snow tractor halfway up the mountain, where there is enough snow for it to operate.
Rancourt and his crew of scientists are quick to note that one mild winter cannot be blamed on global warming.
"This isn't global warming," Rancourt said of the current mild conditions at the summit. "This is weird weather."
The cyclical warming of the Pacific Ocean known as El Nino is contributing to the unusually warm weather conditions across the northeastern United States. Salge said the recent unusual warmth atop Mount Washington was also the result of a lack of cold Arctic air flowing down from Canada, which it typically does at this time of year.
Still, the meteorologists said if the pattern of mild winters continues, they'll have new questions to ask.
"In four years, I haven't seen a really good winter," said Salge. "You see this more and more and it worries me ... There's a rational reason why it's going on this year, but is it going to be more prevalent?"