Usually, when I think of brutal weather conditions, I think of cold places like the Arctic or Antarctic regions. You might do the same…or maybe it’s Siberia or the Yukon Territory that comes to your mind. It could be places of intense heat, like the deserts of Africa or South America’s west coast…or possibly it’s the upper reaches of the Himalayas that the phrase “impossible living conditions” paints behind your eyes.
But I think of the cold, and as I’ve written a few things about the polar expeditions (and have a few more things scheduled), it’s been the cold and wind that always color my impressions.
So it may come as a bit of a surprise that Today’s History Lesson, dealing with brutal winds, comes not from any of those regions…or even anywhere close to them. Rather, we travel to the harsh climate of…New Hampshire.
Yeah, go figure.
But New Hampshire is where Mt. Washington is located, and while we’ve discussed New Hamphire before, today we focus on this 6,288′ high chunk of rock. Immediately, one thinks, “What’s so bad about Mt. Washington? Lots of places in the U.S. way higher than that…what makes this weather so special?” Well, first off, it’s not really the weather in general, though that is rather interesting. Mt. Washington receives an average of 8.5 feet of rain per year and almost 26 feet of snow…per year. Again, keep in mind that it’s but 6,300′ above sea level…not a 10- or 15-thousand-foot peak. The temps are fairly moderate in the summer, but can drop to -40°F or lower in the winter.
It’s the winds that make Mount Washington special. On average, 110 days each year see winds that exceed hurricane force (75mph), with most of those occuring between April and November. When those are combined with bitter cold, well, you can imagine. In January of 2004, -43°F temps combined with 87+mph sustained winds to create windchills of −103°F.
But 87mph is a stiff breeze compared to what observers recorded on April 12, 1934. It was then that a ridge of intense high pressure to the north and east of Mt. Washington began pressing against a strong low pressure system to the west. As we learned from our discussion of the Children’s Blizzard, atmospheric conditions always seek to balance themselves out. So in this case, the powerful high desperately tried to reach equilibrium with a just-as-powerful low. And at 1:21pm, they did so over Mount Washington at 231mph. You read that right…231mph. That’s basically an F5 tornado. And it wasn’t just a “rogue” gust. Throughout the day, gales exceeding 220mph were recorded.
And while extremely powerful tornadoes can best that speed, no wind gust anywhere (that wasn’t from a tornado or hurricane) has ever surpassed it. I suppose that, at some point, that record will be broken, maybe even on Mount Washington. But our sophisticated weather forecasting means I’ll have advanced warning. So on that day, you’ll find me enjoying relative calm of the Antarctic, or the cool of the Sahara, or maybe in the relative safety of the mamba’s lair.
Recommended Reading: The Mount Washington website