After 84 years, Mount Washington’s observatory remains a truly ‘extreme’ place

"We’ve recorded snow of greater than an inch in every single month of the year."

Since its opening in 1932, the Mount Washington Observatory has kept daily records of weather conditions. In this photo, Steve Marchacos scrapes ice off instruments atop the tower on the summit on Dec. 6, 1979.
Since its opening in 1932, the Mount Washington Observatory has kept daily records of weather conditions. In this photo, Steve Marchacos scrapes ice off instruments atop the tower on the summit on Dec. 6, 1979. –Bill Greene/Globe Staff

As Bostonians settle in for another New England winter, a small team of weather observers continues more than eight decades of scientific study, monitoring the region’s most volatile conditions.

Sitting atop the highest peak in New England, the Mount Washington Observatory has measured meteorological data for 84 years.

We have hourly observation data, even handwritten records, going all the way back to our founding in 1932,” said Tom Padham of the Observatory.

In a recently released chart showing the average temperature over 80 years (1935-2015), Mount Washington has experienced an average reading of 27.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

And yes, that means it’s cold enough to potentially snow even during the summer.

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We’ve recorded snow of greater than an inch in every single month of the year,” Padham explained.

Originally from New Jersey, Padham has worked at the observatory for “about four years now.”

I had always been interested in extreme weather and I really found out about the Observatory when I was in high school and started following the site, looking occasionally at the current summit page, especially whenever we were getting a nor’easter,” he said.

His curiosity of extreme conditions has been more than met by living on top of the Mount Washington.

“I’ve been up on top of the tower in 133 mph winds,” Padham remembered of one particularly eventful incident.

Earlier in 2016, the Observatory released footage of Padham and fellow observer Mike Dorfman “enjoying” 109 mph wind gusts on the observation deck at the summit. The YouTube video got more than 1.6 million views:

During summer months, thunderstorms become the primary weather events.

I think our average is about 18 thunderstorms a year and basically every one of those storms is going to have at least a few direct lightning strikes to the summit area, which includes the top of our tower or some of the radio towers up here,” said Padham.

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Do they get any days of clear skies?

“Maybe ten days a year or so.”

Beyond the extreme weather, the observatory has served as a useful tool for New England’s outdoor adventurers.

“I think it’s definitely very important for the local area, the ski industry is definitely big,” Padham explained. “People love to go to the mountains here in New England and enjoy hiking and skiing and spending time outdoors. So understanding what the weather is doing not only in the valleys but also up in the mountains is very valuable.”

As the topic of climate change moves more centrally to meteorological discussion, the Observatory offers a unique perspective.

The 80-year data set does show an increase in the average temperature over time, but Padham says it’s more complicated than that.

“It’s interesting to see some decadal swings,” Padham noted. “Like it was relatively mild by our standards in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and pretty cold actually getting into the ‘70s. Most people would think it’s been consistently warming throughout the 1900s, but that’s not really the case as far as what our data set is showing here.”

“It’s definitely very complicated,” he continued. “I would say that. And temperature is just one factor, and we’re just one point. But 80 years of data is definitely valuable, and you can see a large scale pattern and trend here.”

Still, the observatory isn’t wading into the large-scale debates. It will let others draw conclusions from its scientific measurements.

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“We really want to take more of the stance of just purely observing that data, but that data does speak for itself a little bit I would say.”

Padham did add that Mount Washington does provide another useful tool for those studying the climate. Because the observatory is so far above sea level (at 6,288 feet), it allows for scientific research of how climate change differs based on altitude.

“Our director of research, Eric Kelsey, is also going to be looking into how the rate of warming that you see here is actually a lot less than in valley locations,” said Padham. His theory pertains to the concept of the Planetary Boundary Layer, which Mount Washington is technically above for part of the year.

For Padham, he’s simply enjoying his role in the meteorological community.

“I’ve gotten to experience some really unique weather that a lot of people never will really get to in their lives.” 

And in between biting windchill and daily duties that include breaking rime ice off of summit instruments, Padham enjoys an occupation that he doesn’t want to end anytime soon.

“I’m happy where I’m at, and looking forward to the future.”

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