10:50 Thu Nov 17, 2022
New Trail Signs Meant to Improve Weather Safety in the White Mountains
New signs at trail heads leading to upper elevations in the White Mountains state the following, WARNING: Weather Conditions At High Elevations May Be Dangerous. For information from the Mount Washington Observatory about weather conditions & high elevation forecasts, text "weather forecast" to 603-356-2137.
A project led by Observatory Life Trustee Jack Middleton to design and print over 100 warning signs for display at White Mountain trailheads was recently completed.
The bright yellow signs, printed on 1/8” sturdy metal, warn of potentially dangerous weather at higher elevations while informing hikers that a quick text to 603-356-2137 will generate an automated reply with the current summit conditions and Observatory forecast.
With a QR code that generates an automated text when scanned, the signs are meant to increase awareness and access in the backcountry, where WiFi signals are often not available.
“What inspired this are the news reports on a frequent basis of people being injured on mountains at higher elevations, often with injuries that can be life-threatening,” said Middleton. He also credited author Ty Gagne’s books about decision-making and risk in mountaineering as inspiration.
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire State Parks, Appalachian Mountain Club, and Randolph Mountain Club have all assisted with hanging the signs at trail heads leading to higher elevations in the Presidential Range and Franconia Notch.
Life Trustee Jack Middleton holds one of the signs warning of high-elevation weather.
MWOBS, Staff Comment
13:43 Mon Nov 14, 2022
It's Cooler at the Top
Capturing the moment while doing field research below Mount Washington.
There’s a lot that goes on at the summit of Mount Washington. As many know, one of Mount Washington Observatory’s core priorities is to observe the weather. Observers take an observation every single hour of the day, adding to our 90-year (and counting!) climate record and sharing our data to improve weather models for meteorologists, pilots, climbers, researchers, weather enthusiasts, and other communities.
As the fall intern, I’ve been able to participate in this work, and have also learned how to write the twice-daily Higher Summits Forecast. Coming from a geoscience background, it’s been really exciting to grow as a weather forecaster and to see the parallels in weather forecasting and geologic interpretations: with the former, I synthesize across a variety of data sources to predict what the weather will be in the future, whereas with the latter, I use an assortment of clues left behind by Earth’s geologic processes to postulate what the landscape may have been like in the past.
I also thoroughly enjoyed giving Observatory members tours of the weather station during the warmer months, helping our supporters understand the factors that shape our weather and learn about our instrumentation and observations, and letting kids hold the large mallets we use to de-ice the tower.
However, as I look back on this fall in my final week atop the Rockpile, one of the things I’ve most enjoyed was tackling an Observatory research project.
The Observatory undertakes a variety of research projects, utilizing our location, data, and skills to advance understanding of the natural systems that create Earth’s weather and climate. I am currently working on a project studying the seasonal near-surface lapse rate (NSLR) in the White Mountains – a continuation of summer intern Henry Moskovitz’s work.
Simply put, the NSLR is the rate at which air temperature at the ground (as opposed to, say, 1000 feet in the air) changes with elevation. Accurately understanding how the temperature changes with elevation is valuable for a variety of applications, from our own in-house forecasting to academic studies in the region. For example, a more rapid change in temperature may lead to more thunderstorms forming, and the NSLR can also play a big role in forecasting where the transition may be between rain and snow during precipitation events. From a broader perspective, having an accurate NSLR can help researchers better understand processes such as snowmelt or shifting habitat ranges in the White Mountains.
An accurate near-surface lapse rate can help hikers better anticipate where they may encounter icy trails, like this frozen stretch of the Crawford Path on Oct. 28.
Jackson Hawkins, Summit Intern
Currently, there is no NSLR known specifically for the Whites. Instead, weather models and scientists use the environmental lapse rate (ELR). This value, -6.5 °C/km or -3.5 °F/1,000 feet (meaning temperature decreases on average 3.5 °F per 1,000 feet in altitude gain) is an average of lapse rates across the globe, and thus not necessarily representative of any one mountain range or climate. While using the ELR is better than nothing, knowing what the specific NSLR is for the White Mountains will help improve our answers to questions like those mentioned above. Subsequently breaking the NSLR down by season can further improve the accuracy of such products, since seasonality is so influential in White Mountain weather.
Our Mount Washington Regional Mesonet is the ideal tool to use to uncover seasonal NSLRs in the White Mountains. The mesonet is a series of 17 remote weather stations (plus the staffed summit station) located across the region on different aspects and at different elevations. All of these stations record temperature, and several also include an anemometer to track wind speeds. For my project, I am analyzing data from the subset of these mesonet stations located along the Mount Washington Auto Road. Including the summit station, there are six stations along this vertical transect, all within a very similar geographic range, increasing the likelihood that they are experiencing similar weather systems at the same time. By analyzing data from these stations, broken down by season, we are able to vastly improve our understanding of seasonal NSLR in the White Mountains.
A Halloween sunset casts a beautiful glow over the Southern Presidential range.
Much of my fall has entailed developing a Python script to analyze the data from these stations. Python is a coding language which can make analysis of large datasets much easier and more efficient than other methods, such as using Excel, and which is widely used in the scientific community. While some people find this sort of work infuriating, I actually think coding can be fun – it’s like continually solving puzzles for science! While more complicated, this script essentially takes in a year’s worth of raw data from these six sites, removes any bad data (e.g. an anomalous temperature of 999°F or a day that one site didn’t record temperatures), calculates the NSLR for each day, then averages those daily NSLRs by season to get a seasonal NSLR for the White Mountains.
Two fixtures of my summit internship: Python workspace (for analyzing the Observatory's temperature dataset) and my jar of tea.
Ultimately, we aim to analyze 30 years’ worth of data, as this would constitute a full climatology – a period of time taken to represent the climatic normals of a region – to get the most accurate NSLRs possible for the White Mountains.
I’m still wrapping up the analysis on this project, now focusing on statistical differences between seasons and between each season and the ELR. Running statistics helps us understand if there’s an actual (i.e. significant) difference between two values, or if variation between two values is simply due to random variability in the data. This is particularly key for this project, as it’s ultimately very important to show that the seasonal NSLRs I calculate for the Whites are, in fact, different from the global average ELR. While I don’t have results ready to share just yet, I can share that it’s looking like most seasons have an NSLR that is statistically significantly different from the ELR. We look forward to sharing final results!
When I interviewed for this internship, I expressed that I wanted to work at the Observatory to do science that is directly relevant to society. From writing Higher Summits Forecasts to researching the near-surface lapse rate in the White Mountains, I’ve been delighted to apply my skills to do just that. It’s been particularly fun to be a part of the research going on here at the summit, helping to answer questions that will improve the quality of regional forecasts and ripple out to improve science in the Whites.
The Mount Washington summit as seen across the Great Gulf from Mt. Clay on Oct. 4. You can see why they call it the Rockpile.
I’ve also enjoyed meeting a wide variety of people while giving weather station tours and, of course, spending a fall at the top of New England! While this peak may be the Home of the World’s Worst Weather, it has also felt like a home for me over the last months, and I’ll certainly be sad to head down the Auto Road one last time this week.
It’s gratifying to know that some of my efforts will be incorporated into the Observatory’s work in the future. And who knows? Maybe one of those children posing with a de-icing mallet atop the tower will be in my shoes a few years down the line.
Rime ice and lenticular clouds (my favorite type) make for quite the view across the observation deck on Sept. 16.
14:46 Wed Nov 02, 2022
Forecast Discussion is Key to Interpreting Complex Mountain Weather
As a meteorologist, I’ve had opportunities to forecast for a wide variety of environments and audiences. From the roads of Vermont to the valleys of California and climbers ascending Mount Everest, I’ve learned a lot about forecasting. At least that’s what I believed before starting to predict the weather at New England’s highest summit.
In my few months here, I’ve been humbled on several occasions when forecasting this mountain’s dynamic weather. Mount Washington has taken me to task.
What I am going for here is not the sympathy of the reader, nor is it to reinforce the age-old and wildly inaccurate saying that “a meteorologist is the only person who can get paid to be wrong 50% of the time and keep their job.” Instead, I want to talk about our Higher Summits Forecast
and how to read and interpret it.
We issue this forecast twice a day for the Presidential Range. While it includes variables like temperature, cloud cover, wind speed, wind chill, and precipitation, the most important part is the forecast discussion.
I get it, we live in a world where most of our weather-related decisions revolve around mobile apps, which typically have cozy little icons of expected weather, icons that in my opinion have far too much sway over our choices. Another pet peeve is how these apps put so much focus on exact numbers. I have seen parties and even weddings called off because of a water droplet icon paired with a 50% chance of rain!
What such apps fail to communicate is the uncertainty. Weather is a complex system controlled by countless variables. The app on your phone? Well, it’s simply the average of a handful of computer models and is subject to frequent changes.
Many people who visit the summit after reading our Higher Summits Forecast focus a lot of attention on the numbers in our daily outlook. Maybe it’s a product of the app-based world of weather.
What I'd like to draw your attention to is the Forecast Discussion
portion of our Higher Summits Forecast, which includes a bit of science and strives to communicate the uncertainties inherent in mountain weather. Even though we're all passionate and knowledgeable about the weather up here on the Rockpile, we have all gotten it wrong from time to time. That's why the forecast discussion is such a useful tool in describing our thought processes as we analyze all of the variables, including the powerful role the White Mountains play in influencing weather. These thought processes come from lessons we have learned from previous forecasting errors.
Let’s look at a recent forecast discussion as an example:
Francis Tarasiewicz, Weather Observer & Education Specialist
The first thing you may notice about this discussion is how short it is. Our goal as forecasters is to make the complexities of the atmosphere quick and digestible for those who want to take on the Presidential Range. You wouldn’t typically expect much from 212 words, but this discussion is packed with information.
Our discussions contain information about relevant weather features, which you can think of as “players on the field.” I’ve highlighted each of these players and will discuss them in greater detail.
A shortwave trough, or “shortwave,” is a narrow area of colder air in the upper atmosphere. Smaller than its longwave cousin, the shortwave can cause all kinds of mischief mainly in the form of lower pressure and precipitation. In this particular instance, a shortwave (dashed line) was located just to the west of the summit (white star). This shortwave was responsible for bringing the summits strong winds and much colder temperatures.
Heading down closer to home in the lower atmosphere, let's take a look at surface air pressure. The map below is not an abstract piece of art; rather, it is a display of what we call isobars. Each solid black line indicates an area of equal pressure. The rule of thumb here is the tighter the isobars are packed together, the stronger the winds are. This is the pressure gradient that is mentioned in the forecast. As this gradient strengthened, winds on the summit increased to over 60 within a few hours.
The other important variable mentioned in this particular forecast discussion is the summit temperature; it mentions below freezing temperatures by mid-morning. We laser focus on the timing of crossing such a temperature threshold because just a few tenths of a degree can mean the difference between wet rocks and a dangerously icy summit. For this particular event, you can see just how quickly temperatures changed. In just 30 minutes, the temperature fell from above 35 degrees to below freezing. Conditions on the summit went from damp to downright dangerous in a matter of minutes as standing water and droplets alike froze solid.
There is a reason for the discussion portion of the Higher Summits Forecast, and that reason is the same reason for the bright yellow warning sign at the beginning of the alpine zone. Simply put, Mount Washington and the surrounding summits are home to some of the worst and most variable weather in the world. Whenever you head into the White Mountains, take a moment to read our Higher Summits Forecast, including the discussion, at mountwashington.org.