20:25 Mon Nov 23, 2020
Summer Days and Snow-vember Nights
Hello and windy greetings from the summit of Mount Washington!
My coworkers and I are currently in the middle of a 10-day long shift up on the Rock Pile, and it is shaping up to an exciting time. As I write this, Jay, Nate and I are finally about to experience our first snow event of the season. The summit has had a few snow events already, but so far, nearly all of the snow accumulation has happened while the three of us were off the summit, followed by a melt-out during our shift up. Finally, it seems to be our turn for snow! Currently, (11/22/20 at 10 PM EST) the summit is in the clouds with temperatures around 21°F, with winds out of the south at 49 mph. A low-pressure system is bringing a warm front through the region tonight along with plenty of moisture out of the south, which is currently responsible for the sparse snow showers passing through. Below is a spectacularly blurry photo of the snow coming in, illuminated by flashlight beam with our instrumentation tower in the background.
A few questions arose when it came to the forecast for tonight into tomorrow. How much snow will we receive? Will the warm front bring summit temperatures above freezing? Will winds gust over 100 mph tomorrow evening? Snowfall and high winds are always exciting, and these things can be difficult to forecast, especially when winter has not fully arrived yet. Only time will tell. So far this month it feels like we’ve jumped back and forth from one season to the next. The weather conditions this shift have been drastically different from our previous week on the summit. Two weeks ago, on Sunday, November 8, we broke the daily high temperature record, reaching up to 50°F in the afternoon. It was the first of five days in a row where our record daily high temperature was either broken or equaled. 50 degrees may seem chilly, but for us, it was like we time-travelled back to summer! To give you an idea of how warm that is for this time of year, the all-time November temperature record at Mount Washington is 52°F. If it were an average November day, we might have reached somewhere in the lower to mid-20s. It may not have been shorts-and-a-t-shirt kind of weather, but it was as close as we were going to get in early November. We had relatively light winds, sunny skies, and spectacular views from the summit for days in a row. Even on the non-record-breaking days, we enjoyed well-above-average temperatures throughout the entire shift. The snow and ice that had built up during the previous week had all but melted out, with just a few deep patches lingering. I really enjoyed finishing off my night shifts with a sunrise each morning. Below is one such sunrise – the photo was taken from inside the rotunda.
After heading down the summit in such nice conditions, the journey back up one week later was a perfect reminder of how rapidly the conditions can change. We left the summit in summer and came back up in winter. The summit had received 4-5 inches of snow over the course of several days during our week off, which is a relatively modest amount in and of itself. However, this amounted to deep snowdrifts on portions of the Auto Road that made it impossible to plow through by normal means. We discovered this over halfway up, requiring us to swap to the snowcat for the first time this season. Below is a wintry image taken from the Auto Road during the journey up last Wednesday. It may look mild, but it happened to be the coldest day of the season so far, with summit temperatures reaching a low of -5°F. It has been a while since I’ve felt that sort of cold, and it was a good reminder of what to expect in the next few months. Winter is certainly coming. As of right now it looks like temperatures will drop close to zero after this next cold front passes, with hurricane-force winds and wind chills of 30 below. The weather can be many things up at the summit of Mount Washington, but it is rarely boring.
David DeCou, Weather Observer
20:20 Mon Nov 16, 2020
Have an Ice Night
Hello from the blustery summit of Mount Washington!
I usually write long observers comments but I need to keep it short this time because I am writing this during a storm, while working the night shift alone. As I type this, it is currently around 26 degrees with winds close to 90 mph, and freezing rain (~09:30 PM on Nov. 15). I just came in from de-icing the instruments and my jacket and pants are stiff from glaze ice accumulation. I was outside for less than 10 minutes but I now look and feel like a human icicle.
Thermoshack Coated in Glaze Icing
I am one of the day time observers here at the observatory but this week our usual night observer Ryan took a well needed and well deserved vacation, and I had to take over nights for this shift week. It has been quite an eye opening experience to say the least, and I have gained a lot of respect for Ryan and David, our full-time night observers up here. It takes a different breed of scientist to work the night shift, and while I am making due for the time being, I am not one of them. The calm, clear nights I’ve been able to experience so far this shift week have been breathtaking. The way the night sky looks from up here on the summit is inexplicably beautiful, and I have seen at least 2 dozen shooting stars as well. The not so calm, foggy nights have been a completely different type of experience with a very eerie feel to them. It seems to take much longer to get my eyes to adjust with the fog, and once they adjust, still not much can be seen. It is hard enough to see through fog during the day, so you may be able to imagine what it is like in the dark. Tonight has been wild so far, we started with some snow grains (small, white balls of snowflakes), transitioned to ice pellets (small, clear balls of ice), and have since switched over to full freezing rain. This is my first time dealing with freezing rain up here, as well as with the glaze icing it creates, and I am humbled by it. It coats everything with a hard, greyish coating of ice, which is much harder to de-ice than the normal feathery rime I am used to.
A-Frame Coated in Glaze Icing with Blowing Freezing Rain Visible
This storm system has also been a learning experience for forecasting for myself, and I think my fellow daytime observer Nicole, as well. The forecast for tonight looked like mainly snow for elevations above roughly 4000 feet, with rain for lower elevations. The odd thing I noticed was that the models were not showing much snow accumulation, which I assumed was due to the fast moving nature of this system, but I assumed wrong. Winds have also been from the south, which is funneling in relatively warm air, causing the precipitation to stay liquid as it falls. There does not seem to be a cool enough portion of the atmosphere for snowflakes to form, as of this point in the night. Our higher summit forecasts did not mention the chance of freezing rain, although now I realize there were a few signs that this was coming. It has been a learning experience to say the least. I have to head back outside to de-ice the instruments, so I will end here. I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope to write more soon.
Sam Robinson, Weather Observer/Engineer
11:57 Mon Nov 09, 2020
Election Polls, Plinko, and Weather Forecasting
Like many people in the United States this past week, I spent my evenings watching election results come in. One of the striking things about this election as well as elections in recent years, was the stark contrast between the predicted results and then what actually happened.
A consistent question that has seemed to come up in this election as well as previous years is “How could the polls be so wrong?”. As a weather forecaster, this question seems all too familiar, and any seasoned meteorologist can generally tell you a few things about the discrepancies between forecast models and the resulting weather conditions.
Being familiar with the general concept of complex systems and deterministic forecasting, the inherent challenges are clear. Yesterday and today, as I prepare the higher summits forecast, I reflect on the similarities between the two environments. I say this as someone with admittedly little familiarity with political forecasting and how prediction polls are compiled, but I understand the concept of modelling complex systems, and it's here where I see some compelling similarities.
A big part of the challenge in modelling is trying to replicate what we describe as a chaotic system. Chaotic systems are those where we perhaps understand the basic interactions, but where describing the flow of the system on the whole becomes complex and difficult to predict. When we try to replicate these systems with a model, they exhibit a hypersensitivity to the initial conditions. Essentially, the farther we get from the real time data, the greater the discrepancy in our ability to forecast the system as a whole.
Take for example, the classic carnival (and price is right) game, plinko. We know that by dropping the ball into the labyrinth, when the ball hits a peg, it will go one of two ways. Sounds simple enough, right? But as we start to observe the trajectory of the ball, we find that a ball dropped in approximately the same spot will exhibit a wide range of different paths through the labyrinth. We understand that when the ball hits a peg, two potential outcomes occur, with the ball falling to one side or the other. Despite this basic determinism, as we continue to play plinko, we notice that the trajectory of the ball exhibits hypersensitivity to the initial conditions, a sensitivity that becomes more and more pronounced as the ball navigates the labyrinth.
Nate Iannuccillo, Weather Observer/Education Specialist
Modelling plinko runs in ensemble style...
We can see how the trajectories begin with a fair degree of certainty, but with time, that certainty disintegrates, yielding a large uncertainty.
Modelling complex systems exhibit similar mathematical behavior, and weather models are no exception. Common examples of this are ensemble forecasts from hurricane models.
More recently, we can see a “spaghetti model” showing potential trajectories for Hurricane Eta from about a week ago. The storm is currently active off the southern tip of Florida.
Notice how the trajectories diverge and gain uncertainty with time.
Weather models, unlike our relatively simple plinko game, use a complex network of equations and parameterizations that attempt to replicate the dynamics of our atmosphere. Many large-scale models are fueled by some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, and these models incorporate a large amount of in situ data that’s used in conjunction with the model physics and parameterizations to try to replicate our weather at a high resolution.
This conceptual knowledge is important to the human forecaster who is constantly trying to interpret the model outputs and communicate their uncertainty. Understanding this basic idea helps to clarify why forecasters are always trying to look at the most recent model runs, because we can see how uncertainty increases as we get further and further from the model’s initialization.
As a weather forecaster myself, I’m constantly looking at model outputs at work, so when I see the election polls and analysis, I find myself asking very similar questions about how political situations are being modelled. In politics, we see a network of voters, subject to categorical choices where decisions are made from complex array of variables. From here, I draw my questions... What type of data is being used to initialize this model? What exactly are the model physics and parameters when trying to replicate something as frivolous and whimsical as the human mind?
I recognize that these questions have tangible answers that lie outside the current scope of my knowledge, and I’m aware of this because of some basic conceptual knowledge of modelling. This allows me to recognize that even with something that seems fluid and unpredictable like an election, scientists of a different nature are at work sculpting a physics out of human voting tendencies.
With this in mind, I wonder where the limitations lie in election forecasts. In weather models, while our knowledge of the physics is improving, with models certainly getting updated and adjusted now and again, weather models are largely limited by computing power; our ability to account for and compile the smallest details in our complex earth system to a high resolution.
With election forecasting, I wonder if this is the case, or if we are somehow missing something in terms of the “physics” that I refer to. All models have their limitations and uncertainties, and I find myself trying my best to interpret and understand them, both in meteorology and politics alike.
14:16 Mon Nov 02, 2020
A Spooky Day on the Summit
Working for Mount Washington Observatory’s summit weather station means working shifts of 8 days on 6 days off. Sometimes these shifts are normal weeks and other times they fall on birthdays and holidays. On this most recent shift, my coworkers and I celebrated Halloween atop the tallest mountain in the Northeast!
Figure 1: The Great Summit Pumpkin looking at the full moon from the rotunda.
Halloween was much different this year for everyone, including myself who has never experienced the holiday in such a remote place! The weather conditions for the day were not spooky at all, rather they were perfect with clear skies, mild winds but crisp cool temperatures. I had packed my costume and kept it a secret until that morning when I walked upstairs to the Weather Room wearing Ms. Frizzle’s dress! As a former middle school science teacher and now Educations Specialist for MWObs I felt this character was very fitting! I always strive to be someone who excites others about science and the fascinating things that occur around them, just like Ms. Frizzle. Unfortunately, I did not have an education program to run on Halloween so I could not truly be Ms. Frizzle then. However, I channel my Ms. Frizzle energy every Monday at 11:15am when I (and my counterpart on the other shift, Nate) host our virtual classroom series from the summit!
Figure 2: Observer Nicole Tallman dressed as Ms.Frizzle for halloween!
Later that evening we all looked forward to the full moon that was to come. We watched the sun go down while the full moon rose on opposite horizons. The bright orange moon made its appearance against the pastel lit skyline.
Figure 3: The Great Summit Pumpkin by the summit sign.
Later that evening once the sun was fully down, we went outside to find a dark sky brightened only by the full moon in the sky and The Great Summit Pumpkin propped up by the summit sign. This of course made all of us smile! Celebrating the holidays away from home can be a bummer, but the summit crew really knows how to make this place feel like a home away from home.
Figure 4: Full moon rise on Halloween night with sunset colors.
Nicole Tallman, Weather Observer/Education Specialist