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- March 02, 1981
- Vol. 15
- No. 8
Scientists on Mount Washington's Deep-Frozen Peak Track the Mystery of This Savage Winter
There is no easy reckoning with the discontents of our winter. A leviathan force with no more substance than air, weather remains frustratingly immune to forecasts and fixes. Fortunately, however, there are some for whom that elusiveness is a kind of dare, and of that breed there are no purer exemplars than the men who spend their winter months in the weather station at the summit of New Hampshire's 6,288-foot Mount Washington.
Locals describe the hellish winters there as "colder than a banker's shady side." The wind rarely dips below 60 mph, and the highest reading ever recorded on earth, 231 mph, was charted here in 1934. The thermometer rarely rises above 0° F. and sinks frequently into the minus 30s. The wind-chill factor is so unbearable the observatory staff doesn't bother to calculate it. For two-thirds of the year, moreover, the station is swathed in depressing pea-soup clouds; when straying outside their range of visibility, the staff must be tethered to guide ropes. "The people who work here are intrigued by the isolation of winter and the romance of the mountains," says Guy Gosselin, 48, director of the observatory's six-man force. "One absolute requisite is a sense of humor."
Part of a network of 20,000 weather stations across the world that help scientists map and forecast, the Mount Washington station—a nonprofit foundation run for the most part on federal funds—is pivotal not only for its location in the principal North American storm track but also for its sheer altitude. "Mount Washington affords us an observation deck 6,200 feet in the air," explains Jack Rimkunas, a meteorologist in the Portland, Maine office of the National Weather Service. "Because the weather on earth is controlled by the winds in the upper atmosphere, we watch what happens up there very closely."
The perspective of the observatory team on the larger weather picture is much like a grunt's-eye view of war; attention to national patterns is minimal. Instead, the six staff members, who work one week on, one week off in teams of three, are on duty round the clock to check weather-monitoring and radio equipment, to hack ice off the rooftop antenna and weathervane—whose deicers are nearly powerless in deep sub-zero cold—and to make radio reports every three hours to the National Weather Service office in Portland. In the time remaining they do a wide range of contract work—everything from measuring the effect of wind and ice loads on cables to doing cosmic ray research for the National Science Foundation and checking out solar panels for Exxon.
This winter their chief responsibility has been to help find the causes of our freak weather. The major one was a ridge of high-pressure air over the Pacific, 700 miles west of California, that has stood in place for months and blocked the warm, moist jet stream from its usual sweep east. Instead, for most of the winter the warm air mass dropped its moisture in heavy rains on the Pacific Northwest, leaving cold, dry air to plague the East. "We've only had three occasions since the early '30s when a weather pattern like this hung on for so long," says Don Gilman, chief of the National Weather Service Prediction Branch. "But the cold and the drought are now pretty much over. A sizable part of the country should be getting precipitation, and the temperature looks to be rather mild."
For the men of Mount Washington whose work makes such predictions possible, life at the top is often lonely. With studied understatement, director Gosselin observes: "Some very unusual people work here." Greg Gordon, 34, a college dropout, enjoys the team's sense of self-sufficiency. "I'm not perfectly content," he admits, "but I have no long-range plans." Meteorologist Ken Rancourt, 30, an avowed city hater, is happiest when the weather is wildest. "You should hear the wind when it's howling," he says wistfully. "I like it best when it's gray." Only two of the staff members—Gosselin and John Howe, a 54-year-old Princeton-educated engineer—are married. "You have to have an understanding wife," shrugs Howe.
Their own adaptability is tested severely. During the winter the observatory is utterly isolated from the world, accessible only by an awkward, tanklike conveyance called a Spryte, which makes the eight-mile trek up the mountain road every Wednesday to bring food, supplies—and a replacement crew. Although the men spend all their time working within the two-acre compound—which contains the laboratory, the observation tower, a museum (open only in summer) and a TV transmitter station—they find that days often go by when they speak to their colleagues rarely or not at all. Only at 5:30 do the three meet in one place for a communal meal. "This work appeals most to those who love nature," says Gordon, "and to those who have a reclusive bent."
All six staffers are ill at ease with the outside world. "There are two seasons on Mount Washington," jokes Gosselin. "Winter and August. Spring is just when the croquet wickets peek through the snow, and the road turns to mud." Yet spring and August are the times the men dread most. That is when the old cog railroad up the side of the mountain opens up, and rubber-neckers by the hundreds start pouring into the visitor center and observatory museum adjacent to the working quarters. Often the tourists get lost walking through Mount Washington's craggy woods—and the observatory crew must venture out to find them before night falls and the lightly clad greenhorns feel the mountain's chill. (Even in summer the nighttime temperature near the summit goes down to the low 20s.) "You hate to risk the lives of our people when someone else hasn't taken the proper precautions," admits Gosselin. "But," he adds in what could serve as his staff credo, "you do what you have to do."
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