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Mount Washington An International Educational Outpost

Mount Washington Observatory Hosts Students from the University of Ruhr for Twelfth Consecutive Year

Mount Washington, NH—As a microclimatologist and professor from the Ruhr region of Germany, Andreas Pflitsch’s career has taken him all over the world. From ice caves in Slovakia, to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, he has studied airflow and wind movement in some of the Earth’s most unique underworlds. None of these places, however, have captured his attention like Mount Washington, NH, with its rare combination of geographic and climatic features. The perfect natural laboratory for both Pflitsch and his pupils, he has brought students to the Mount Washington Observatory summit weather station every winter since 1997. This year, from February 15-21 and March 1-7, two groups of twelve students each came to study the mountain’s weather and experience the rigors of conducting scientific research in such an extreme outpost.

“While there are certainly colder places and probably more windy places,” Pflitsch notes, “nowhere else boasts a full-service research facility and is so close to several major metropolitan areas.”

A total of two weeks in length, Pflitsch’s student trips begin with a brief visit to New York City for sightseeing and a look at wind currents in the city’s subway system. The group then heads north to Boston, where they continue their study of underground airflow. Next, they travel to Brattleboro, Vermont, where students are introduced to the New England woodland environment and begin their studies in geology and geography. Finally, they head to New Hampshire, where they make the journey up Mount Washington for a one-week stay at the Mount Washington Observatory’s summit weather station. There, students conduct various assignments and research projects, ranging from wind mapping to measuring temperature variations in alpine microclimates.

“I give my students an assignment and they think, ‘hey, this is easy.’ But once they see what it is like to work in this kind of environment, they quickly learn that nothing is easy up here,” says Pflitsch. “We have winters in Germany, but not like this.”

Marcel Gellissen, a graduate student from the University of Ruhr at Bochum, is currently conducting research for his thesis project in climatology. His fourth visit to Mount Washington since 2007, Gellissen is completing a month-long study of the various methods used to measure frozen precipitation. As a self-proclaimed extreme weather junkie, Gellissen says he is “hooked on Mount Washington’s weather,” noting that “there’s no other place you can experience weather like this.”

From his first visit to Mount Washington as a tourist in 1993, Pflitsch knew it would make an ideal classroom for his students. The mountain’s unique topography, extreme weather, and great accessibility were unlike anywhere else he had ever been, allowing him to introduce a broad range of topics and environments in one relatively short visit. And while he admits that the students are often initially more excited about the urban portion of the trip, in the end, it is their time on Mount Washington that they cherish the most.

“It’s a whole lot of fun to be up in the tower and feel the wind,” says Katja Linke, an English and geography major who is studying to be teacher. Though she has studied in the United States before, it is her first visit to Mount Washington.

Stefan Jamsen, a geography major, also notes appreciation for the cultural immersion, as students live and work alongside Observatory staff for the duration of their visit. “The people here, the weather observers, are great. I have learned a lot from them.”

A national resource for weather and climate education, the Mount Washington Observatory frequently collaborates with colleges and universities on research projects and other educational programs.

“Our mountaintop weather station is really a natural laboratory that allows students to bring into the field those theories and concepts that they learn in the classroom,” says Ken Rancourt, Mount Washington Observatory Director of Summit Operations. Pflitsch’s first point of contact back in 1994, it was Rancourt who invited Pflitsch to explore the educational opportunities on Mount Washington. “Climatology and meteorology cross international boundaries, and it’s important that the Observatory participates in programs that facilitate this exchange of knowledge.”

The twelfth consecutive year of the program, Pflitsch is thrilled to be able to offer this kind of experience to his students. “I tell them about Mount Washington’s weather and they see it in videos, but they are always amazed at how different it is in real life—how strong the wind really can be and how difficult it can be to walk in wind and work in wind.”

Gellissen, who has also conducted cold weather research in Scandinavia, is convinced that Mount Washington is the best place to gain practical field experience. “You have rough weather, but rough beauty too. You can’t find these conditions anywhere else.”

Mount Washington Observatory is a private, nonprofit, member-supported research and educational institution. Its mission is to advance understanding of the natural systems that create the Earth's weather and climate, by maintaining its mountaintop weather station, conducting research and educational programs and interpreting the heritage of the Mount Washington region. For more information, visit MountWashington.org or call (800) 706-0432.

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