Science Saturday: The Sunday Edition

Weather station and visitor centerThis Science Saturday is a salute to Mount Washington. Not for any particular reason, except that I have pictures of it and it’s one of my favorite places in the world (never mind that I haven’t gotten around much). It’s the tallest peak in the northeast and belongs to New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in the White Mountains. It’s also known as the site of the world’s worst weather, which may explain why I love it so.


At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is a dwarf compared to Mount Everest (29,029 feet), but a giant when sized against my little town of Pigspittle, elevation 1,001 feet. More than 130 people have died on the mountain since records were first collected in the 1800s. In most cases, a combination of bad luck, bad preparation, and bad weather was to blame.

What’s so special about the weather there? The wind. Mount Washington holds the title to the highest recorded wind on earth—higher than that of wind on Mount Everest or K2 or any other taller, more formidable mountain. According to Mount Washington Observatory‘s web site, “On April 12, 1934, scientists recorded a wind gust of 231 MPH, the highest wind speed ever observed on the surface of the earth.” I gather that the concept of wind chill is something of a novelty.

I visited Mount Washington twice—once in winter and once in summer. Summer, by far, was the more enjoyable experience, especially given that I was in a car and the weather was reasonably warm and the wind, though fierce, wasn’t ferocious. The winter trip, taken in the early 1980s, was on a whim, with an ex-boyfriend who had even fewer scruples than I. I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, wearing a simple winter coat, maybe some hiking boots (although I don’t recall owning hiking boots—I’m just theorizing that I had enough brains then not to hike without them), and some mittens. We took the Auto Road by foot; no one was around, the snow was fairly deep, and I was exhausted after two miles. At mile two, the fog and wind were kicking in and we could no longer see beyond a few dozen feet. I voted to turn around. Only later did I hear stories of others attempting to climb the mountain, similarly unprepared, who didn’t make it home.

Here’s what the Observatory says about wind:

Recalling the basic formula from physics, F = ma , we realize that the force of the wind, as compared to its speed, roughly speaking, increases exponentially. We’re oversimplifying it a bit, but for rough-and-ready field purposes, we can estimate that if one wind is two times the speed of another, then its force is two squared, or four times, as great as the force of the lesser wind. A wind ten times as fast as another is ten squared, or one hundred, times more forceful than the lesser wind. Thus a one hundred mile per hour wind is four times as forceful as a fifty mile per hour wind. A fifty mile per hour wind is enough to make headway difficult; a one hundred mile per hour wind will require a hiker to stop in his or her tracks, to struggle, aided by a ski pole or ice axe, to maintain balance and to stay in one place. Progress is virtually impossible.

I returned to Mount Washington a decade later and took these pictures with a disposable camera. mountwash3.jpgAs you can see, the Presidential Range is partly above treeline, making for a scrappy, beautifully brutal landscape.

As I write this, the wind on Mount Washington is 42 MPH with gusts up to 62.

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