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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. Does Mount Washington really have the world's worst weather?

It is the combination of extreme cold, wet, high winds, icing conditions and low visibility consistently found atop Mount Washington which earn it the title "Home of the World's Worst Weather". As William L. Putnam states in The Worst Weather on Earth, "There may be worse weather, from time to time, at some forbidding place on Planet Earth, but it has yet to be reliably recorded." Despite its relatively low elevation (6,288') Mount Washington is located at the confluence of three major storm tracks, and being the highest point in New England, it generally takes the brunt of passing storms. The steepness of the slopes, combined with the north/south orientation of the range, cause the winds to accelerate dramatically as they rise up from the valleys.

2. What is the purpose of the Observatory?

The Observatory's mission is to maintain a 24 hour record of the weather conditions on the summit of Mount Washington, while taking advantage of its unique conditions to conduct important scientific research. In addition, the Observatory helps promote an awareness of mountain weather and the fragile mountain environment by providing a variety of educational programs and public services.

3. How is the Observatory funded?

The Mount Washington Observatory is a private, nonprofit, membership based organization. It generates funds through several methods: membership fees, educational program fees, museum admissions and Museum shops sales, scientific research projects, the National Weather Service contracts, daily radio shows and scientific or educational grants, all of which contribute to administrative and operating expenses. We also are grateful for corporate support from such organizations as Eastern Mountain Sports, Subaru of America, the Mt. Washington Auto Road, The Mount Washington Cog Railway, Laconia Savings Bank and other companies. Much of our support comes from individuals who join us as Observatory members. Except for compensation for services rendered, or as a component of special, specific projects, the Observatory receives no Federal or state support.

4. How can I become a volunteer at the Observatory?

By becoming a member of the Mount Washington Observatory, you are eligible to apply to volunteer a week of your time and spend it working on the summit. What this entails is heading up to the summit Wednesday morning with the up-going crew. Once there, your primary responsibility is to help out with the cooking and general housekeeping for the crew and other Observatory guests. You share quarters with them and have the opportunity to experience first hand exactly what life on the top entails. Hang out in the weather room, take a hike, watch a sunrise or sunset, it's up to you. Because of limited openings, application for a volunteer work week on the summit can be somewhat competitive, so be sure to apply early! We also have volunteers assisting schools and groups during their visits to the Weather Discovery Center, and performing other tasks at our North Conway office..

5. What do I receive as a member of the Observatory?

As a member of this unique organization, you will receive numerous benefits. First, you are sent issues of Windswept, a quarterly magazine detailing summit activities, ongoing research in the world of weather, and perhaps a taste of the rich White Mountain history. You also receive a 10% discount on all merchandise at our summit Museum Shop, our North Conway Museum Shop, and through mail order and our on-line catalog here at our web site. You are welcome to tour the Observatory anytime you find yourself on top of New England. You receive free admission to the Summit Museum (open mid-May to mid-October). And you are eligible to apply to participate in our varied programs, ranging from our volunteer programs, to summer overnight visits to our weather and research station, to winter EduTrip overnights and winter DayTrips. Most of all, you receive the satistfaction of being an important part of this important New England institution, which has served the public for more than three-quarters of a century.

6. What are EduTrips?

EduTrips are overnight winter workshops which take place on the summit. The participants ride the snow tractor up in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening participating in exciting and informative class sessions, indoors or out, which focus on specific topics in the mountain environment, such as geology, meteorology, mountain photography, and other related subjects. After a hearty meal in the company of the crew, there's some down time in which participants can simply relax and explore the weather room and premises. The next morning, there is usually a tour of the museum and further class sessions. After lunch, the group returns to the base (weather permitting), again in the snow tractor. While very informative and lots of fun, EduTrips are not for everyone; safety dictates that only individuals who are properly clothed and equipped and in good physical condition take part in the trips.

7. How do the crew get up and down the mountain in the winter?

During the winter months, the privately owned Mount Washington Auto Road is closed. With special permission, the Observatory crew is transported up and down the Road in a twin-tracked snow vehicle. While the Road remains unplowed, the machine sports a large plow on the front enabling the machine to level out the ever-forming snow drifts along the road. Its large treads firmly grip both snow and ice and ensure a safe trip to and from the summit, under most conditions. When visibility drops to 10 feet or less, it becomes impossible to follow the Road safely, and trips are postponed until conditions improve. Towards the end of a snowy winter, the snow machine often travels on top of ten to twenty feet of snow, staying on the Road only by following tall poles marking its edge. Great Glen Trails also uses the lower half of the Road as part of their cross country ski system, and offers "snowcoach tours".

In summer a typical time for driving up or down the Road is 30 minutes; in winter, a good time -- with little plowing and good visibility --- is 90 minutes. With substantial plowing and waits to allow the visibility to intermittently improve, that time can be doubled.

On days when visibility is good and winds remain manageable, some observers elect to hike up to the summit.

8. What is a typical day like at the Observatory?

The day observer goes on duty roughly at 4:30 am, when the night observer sleepily wanders off to bed. The day observer usually hosts three or four radio shows in the morning, disseminates various weather information and performs the daily "walkaround" to ensure all systems are operating satisfactorily. This is in addition to answering frequent phone calls, conducting hourly weather observations and monitoring ongoing research work. Other tasks include record keeping, maintenance and general housekeeping jobs, and occasionally search and rescue responsibilities. The night observer's duties are essentially the same, although without the radio shows, but adding in additional paperwork to compile an official summary of the day's meteorological events.

9. How long are the work shifts?

A typical shift week lasts eight days. The Observatory maintains two crews, working on an every other week schedule. Every Wednesday morning the upgoing crew will ascend to the summit, and exchange notes with the downgoing crew, who leave in mid- afternoon. The weather room is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

10. On average, how big is the weekly summit crew?

This varies with the seasons. Usually present are two weather observers, one or two interns and a weekly volunteer (one of our members). During the busy summer months, an additional intern or two joins the crew, as does a museum attendant. Administrative staff, researchers, and participants in educational programs also frequent the summit.

11. Do observers go outside in all conditions?

The fundamental rule is to be safe, and to take no unnecessary risks. It is up to the discretion of the observer on duty to decide if it remains safe to venture out. Generally, however, observers are prepared to face most conditions. Heavy mittens, a face mask and goggles help protect all flesh from biting winds, even if temperatures plummet to -40°F and winds kick up to over 100 miles per hour. An overhead lightning storm at the time of an observation will keep observers safely inside, however.

12. What are some of the dangers you face living on the summit?

When observers venture outside during high winds and storms, they need to be careful of several things. One is visibility. Visibility can be so limited, that if observers become disoriented, they may lose their bearings and have a difficult time finding their way back to the building, and safely inside. High winds can potentially hurl an observer into a wall, or onto the ground, so they must be aware of their balance, and be ready to catch themselves, or make a safe crash landing to the ground if necessary. The wind can also toss large objects around, such as ice chunks. A piece of ice weighing 80 pounds could cause serious, possibly fatal, injury. Observers must always be on their guard to avoid falling and flying missiles.

We have a very good safety record, and can only maintain that by being well-prepared and relatively conservative in our activities. Since, in extreme storm conditions, outside help may be days away, we always need to exercise special precautions for safety.

13. What do the summit crew do for entertainment?

Twelve hour shifts consume much of an observer's day, or night. But they do have plenty of entertainment possibilities in their cozy quarters, whether they are in the mood for TV, a movie, games like scrabble (a favorite), chess, hearts, or a social get-together with the State Park crew. A small library houses great reading material, and phone service allows for calls to family and friends.

14. How often are weather observations taken?

Observers go outside every hour to make numerous weather observations. Every three hours additional information, including barometric pressure and cloud types, is also recorded. Every six hours, precipitation amounts are determined and the maximum and minimum temperatures during that period are recorded.

15. What kind of research projects is the Observatory involved in?

The Observatory is involved in numerous scientific research projects. These include: monitoring ground level ozone and cosmic radiation, conducting visibility studies for pilot safety, measuring the size of cloud droplets, studying icing and freezing precipitation conditions, global positioning studies and a variety of equipment testing in severe weather.

16. Does the Observatory prepare forecasts?

Observers monitor and record current weather conditions at the summit, but do not perform official regional forecasting. The weather information that is sent on an hourly basis to the National Weather Service is used by the NWS in regional and national forecasting models. The regional forecast information ("the valley forecast") disseminated by the Observatory is generated by the NWS. Thanks to access to a remarkable amount of weather information via the internet, the Observatory staff does create, each day, a 36 hour outlook for the Mount Washington summit area, which can be used for general guidance for those considering visits to or recreational activities in the Mount Washington area..

17. To whom are the observations transmitted?

The hourly observations conducted on the summit are sent to the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Gray, Maine (near Portland).

18. What does the Weather Service do with the observations when they receive them?

When this information is received, it is incorporated into national weather maps and used to help forecast regional weather. It is also used by the local media in their weather programs as Mount Washington's conditions are of immense interest to a large local and national audience.

19. Why are people needed to operate the weather equipment on the summit?

While most automated modern weather equipment consists of superior quality materials, not all of it is designed to withstand and operate in the harsh conditions found on Mount Washington. In many cases, the older equipment is more robust and performs more accurately under severe conditions. The staff remains essential in this arctic climate, constantly deicing equipment in winter and performing general instrument maintenance.

The Observatory does operate many newer systems as well, often linked to computers. Manual safeguards are in place to prevent damage from potential lightning strikes.

20. When do the Auto Road and Cog Railway open and close?

Typically the Auto Road and Cog Railway open to passengers in mid May and remain open until the middle or end of October. Weather conditions, however, can alter these times. If seasonal snowfall has been heavy it may take longer to clear the tracks and the Road sufficiently in the spring. A severe storm can also close operations prematurely, if the safety of a trip to the summit is in question. It is always a good idea to call ahead if planning a trip to the summit, to be aware of the latest mountain conditions.

21. Do people visit the summit in the winter?

Neither the Auto Road nor the Cog Railway offer transportation to the summit in winter. You may still hike to the top, but be advised that Mt. Washington State Park is closed and no public facilities, shelter, bathrooms, or water are available. Only very experienced, fit, and well-outfitted persons familiar with mountain conditions should attempt this undertaking.

The only way to gain access to summit facilities is by signing up for a day or overnight educational trip with the Observatory, or a partner-led climbing trip.

22. Did I read correctly that visitors are not allowed in the summit building after it is closed for the winter season?

That's right, from about mid-October until about mid-May, the summit building is CLOSED to the general public. There is no shelter, no food, no hot coffee, no bathrooms, no water - "no nothin". Any individuals planning a trip to the summit in winter must plan their trip accordingly, and must be in good physical shape, be properly clothed, have the relevant winter mountaineering equipment (such as ice axe and crampons) and know how to use it, must be alert to avalanche and other hazards, and must be willing to head back down the mountain should conditions deteriorate.

23. Where does the Observatory's electricity come from?

Starting in the fall of 2007, the summit has been using "grid power", which is transmitted from the valley in a buried cable along the Cog Railway tracks. For back-up purposes, the Mount Washington State Park crew maintains two large kerosene-fueled emergency generators which can provide power for the entire summit. Kerosene remains liquid and flows at very low temperatures making it a suitable liquid fuel to use on the often frigid summit.

24. How is the Observatory building heated?

The heat for the Observatory is produced by a kerosene burning furnace. The fuel is stored on the summit in five 20,000 gallon tanks which are filled by tanker trucks in late summer and early fall. To maintain a ready supply of fuel, the Observatory has its own 275 gallon storage tank which requires filling from the larger tanks roughly once every week.

25. Where does the water supply come from?

The water on the summit comes from a 600 foot deep well. Water is pumped from the well into five 3,000 storage tanks inside the building. After each batch is pumped, the lines must be drained of all excess water to avoid freezing. The Observatory uses roughly 1,000 gallons of water per week.

26. What happens to the rest of the building when everything is closed?

When the State Park crew closes the summit for the winter, their section of the building is shut down, with pipes drained and shutters bolted over the doors, and the heat is turned down - it gets mighty cold inside! Only the Observatory part of the building is fully heated and has running water. At this time, the building is closed to the public.

27. Why doesn't the Observatory harness wind energy to generate power?

Several years ago a lengthy study was conducted evaluating the potential to harness wind power from Mount Washington's endless and reliable supply. The study concluded that the frequent icing of equipment and the strength and gustiness of the wind at this location was so severe that wind energy would not be a practical or cost effective alternative. This remains the case today. Perhaps future designs will allow the Observatory to generate power economically through its ever-present friend, the wind.

28. Does anybody else live on the summit besides the Observatory staff?

Aside from the Observatory Crew, which inhabits the summit year-round, the Mount Washington State Park Crew also remain on top year-round. They rotate shifts on the similar schedule to the Observatory, weather permitting. In the summer, there are usually two State Park rangers on the summit every night, to do facility maintenance and to serve as emergency standby staff.

29. Are there any power lines up to the summit?

There are no communications lines of any type extending to the summit. Phones are operated via microwave link; an assortment of antennas and repeaters provide radio communication.

30. When was the Sherman Adams Building built?

The Sherman Adams building was completed in the summer of 1980.

31. What is the Century Club and how can I join?

To join the Century Club, one must brave winds averaging 100 miles per hour while taking a stroll around the rooftop viewing deck, without falling over or holding on to anything for support. On a calm day such a stroll takes merely a minute or two. In 100 mile per hour winds, the walk becomes a potentially dangerous adventure which can last up to 20 minutes before arriving back at the Observatory tower door. Add an icy deck into the equation, and completing this feat becomes quite an accomplishment. Membership in the Century Club is unofficial.

32. Do the cats live on the summit year-round?

You bet! Cats have long been an integral part of the Observatory, and constant companions to the summit crew. The current feline resident, Marty, has full run of the Sherman Adams State Park building in the winter, but tends to stay in the Observatory proper in the summer. In the summer he regularly braves the outdoors to bask in the fleeting sun. During most of the year, however, he prefers the warmth of the crew's quarters and the weather room.

33. What kinds of animals live on the summit?

A small variety of mammals survive in the cold, arctic conditions found on the summit of Mount Washington. The list includes foxes, squirrels, mice, voles, weasels, and bobcats; even wandering moose and beaver have braved the elements to visit the upper reaches of the mountain. Ravens frequent the summit delighting spectators with their acrobatics, and during the summer months, white throated sparrows, juncoes, and pipits reside in or near the alpine meadows. Stink bugs and even mosquitoes reach the summit during the brief milder conditions of "summer".

34. When is your first inch of snow?

The first inch of snow typically falls in mid to late September.

35. What is the windiest day in the Sherman Adams Building?

On December 4, 1980, just after moving in to the new building, the Observatory recorded a peak gust of wind of 178 miles per hour. The gust has yet to be topped in the "new" building. Also worthy of mention was our windiest summer day ever, July 20, 1996, when the wind averaged 100 miles per hour for the entire day, and gusted to 153 miles per hour.

36. What is Mount Washington's highest recorded wind speed?

The world's highest recorded surface wind speed observed by man was clocked on the summit of Mount Washington by Observatory crew on April 12, 1934 at an almost incredible 231 miles per hour!

37. What is the farthest you can see from the top of the mountain?

On clear days visibility sometimes stretches to a little more than 130 miles! The view can include New York State's Mount Marcy, Mount MacIntyre, and Mount Whiteface in the Adirondack Mountains to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean more than 60 miles to the east, along the coast of Maine.

More typical though, are days when dense fog limits visibility to 100 feet or less; the summit is in the clouds about 60% of the time.

38. What is a typical day in January like?

The average daily temperature in January hovers around 5 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds blowing at an average speed of more than 45 miles per hour (gusting to hurricane force regularly). Fog and blowing snow can reduce visibility to 200 feet or less. The windchill equivalent frequently dips to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.

39. What do you eat at the Observatory?

Anything, everything...The summit crew eats well, and samples plenty of scrumptious food which the week's volunteer prepares. The kitchen boasts a huge pantry, stocked with a six month supply of staple goods such as canned goods, dry goods, and frozen foods. Fresh produce, milk, and bread are brought up weekly on shift changes. Whatever your culinary preferences, you will find something to your liking in the cupboards and on the table!

Unfortunately, we have not yet found a pizza parlor which will deliver to the top of the mountain.

40. What is rime ice?

Rime ice is essentially frozen fog. When temperatures dip below freezing, super-cooled water droplets (liquid water droplets which exist at temperatures below the freezing point) suspended in the clouds which enshroud the summit freeze instantly upon contact with any solid object, be it a building, a sign or a weather observer. When the droplets freeze, they can form delicate, feather-like structures which grow into the wind at a rate of up to a foot an hour, coating everything in white.

41. How is wind speed measured on Mount Washington?

Wind speed is measured using either of two instruments. When winds are light, a three-cup anemometer records the velocity, as it is especially sensitive. Wind speed is measured by the rate at which the cups turn. However, stronger winds, over 30 miles per hour, tend to put a lot of wear and tear onto such an instrument, and cause its bearings to wear out prematurely. Also, there is no effective means to prevent rime ice from accumulating on a three-cup, and rime ice on such an anemometer can cause poor readings at best, and destruction of the instrument at worst. So high winds and heavy icing - such as are common on Mount Washington, especially in the winter -- call for a specialized device, a pitot-static anemometer. Using a customized application for a piece of aviation hardware, the Observatory's pitot vanes into the wind and measures its speed essentially through the pressure exerted through a hole in the front of the instrument. The reading is then recorded on a wind chart in the Observatory's weather room, and is also converted to an electronic signal for other purposes.

42. What is the average barometric pressure on the summit of Mount Washington?

The average barometric pressure on Mount Washington is roughly 23.66 inches of mercury; a typical sea level pressure would be 29.92 inches of mercury. Therefore, there is about 20% less air (by mass) on the summit than there is in the valley.

43. What causes the lower barometric pressure on Mount Washington?

Air extends to the top of the atmosphere and exerts pressure on all the air below. On the summit there is less air above to exert pressure upon it than there is in the valley, thus causing the lower barometric pressure on the summit.

44. Did the anemometer which measured the world's highest surface wind speed observed by man really fly off during the storm in 1934?

No! The anemometer which clocked the 231 mile per hour wind on April 12, 1934 did not blow away. After the storm had passed, the anemometer was taken down to be tested for accuracy. It proved to be correctly calibrated and thus the top wind speed become officially accepted. The anemometer now resides on the summit in the Observatory's Summit Museum.

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