The pinnacle of bad weather Mount Washington: A typhoon in Guam could break the New Hampshire peak's 63-year-old wind speed record, but observers here still claim the title of "world's worst" climate.

Sun Journal

December 29, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A typhoon in Guam earlier this month could cost Mount Washington its world-famous wind record -- but it still has the lousiest weather on this blue planet.

Jack Dunn says so. The other day 100-mile-an hour winds blew him 40 feet when he stepped outside the Mount Washington Observatory he directs on the 6,288-foot peak in New Hampshire.

"I was trying to see what a 100-plus wind feels like. I tried to stand up. Planted my feet widely. Knocked down again. I had to crawl back on hands and knees. And that was 100 miles an hour. Think of what 200 miles an hour is like -- 230 is incredible!"

Wherever it's measured.

The hardy observatory people, measuring weather every hour of the year on what they call "the Rock Pile," have "bittersweet emotions" about reports that instruments at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam clocked a gust at 236 mph when Typhoon Paka hit the island Dec. 16.

That is five miles an hour stronger than a 231-mph wind recorded April 12, 1934, on Mount Washington, one of the world's venerable weather records.

"If the record's confirmed, we'll pass the hat to Guam," says Dunn, 63, the observatory's executive director. "But we can still claim the world's worst weather."

Ironically, a few days before the Guam storm, Alexander Anderson McKenzie, 89, died in Rosemont, Pa. He was the last survivor of the trio of observers that recorded Mount Washington's wind record.

One observatory member e-mailed others that "Maybe this [Paka] was the wind of Alex arriving at the Pearly Gates." Another staff member says McKenzie, after hearing about Guam, would have snapped: "Prove it."

It's hard to argue with the observatory's claim to record the world's worst weather. The nonprofit scientific and education institution, begun in 1932 after an earlier summit weather operation from 1871 to 1887, has recorded many extreme conditions:

In May, 95 inches of snow fell, 20 inches in one 24-hour period. The daily wind averaged 42 mph, with one gust of 125. The average temperature was 28 degrees. It was foggy 29 days, cloudy 26 days, snowy 22 days, rainy 12 days and clear two days.

In 1968-1969, snow piled up to 566 inches, a record on the mountain. Average yearly snowfall is 255 inches. A hiker started out in clear weather from Pinkham Notch one August day and climbed into a blinding snowstorm and three new inches on the summit.

Daily winds average from August lows of 25 mph, gusting to 142, to a January high of 46 mph with gusts of 173. This year's strongest gust was 139 mph on Nov. 1. Average temperature is 26 degrees, average wind is 35 mph. Below-zero temperatures and winds above 50 mph are common. A summit wind-chill table lists readings down to minus 148.

Extremes can occur simultaneously -- and upside down. At 10 a.m. one October day this year, it was cloudy, wet and chilly in the Washington valley, but brilliantly sunny, windless and in the 60s above the clouds.

"We're really an arctic island in a temperate zone," says Mark Ross-Parent, a former staff meteorologist.

Mount Washington, the highest hill in the Northeast, has violent weather, Dunn says, because it sticks up into three weather patterns: those coming north up the Atlantic coast, those from the Midwest and those from Canada.

Measuring bad weather is what Mount Washington meteorologists live for. And wind is the main engine of the mountains that Henry David Thoreau called "cloud machines."

The 231-mph record has been worn as a badge of courage by devotees for 63 years. A summit sign proclaims it. Books, pamphlets, videos and postcards trumpet it. Speakers discuss the wind's origin and context.

Three observatory men, along with two visitors, made the historic measurement inside the observatory during a horrendous blow that began April 11, 1934.

Fog covered the summit. Screaming gusts of 100 mph became roaring gusts over 200 mph the morning of April 12. Men chopping thick rime ice from the outside anemometer post couldn't hear themselves yell. The observatory -- chained to rocks -- shook, but stayed put.

Chief observer Salvatore Pagliuca, cook Wendell Franklin Stephenson and radioman McKenzie used stopwatches to time the clicking of a telegraph sounder connected to the anemometer, an instrument turned by the winds.

It was 1: 21 p.m. Pagliuca recorded the results in his log book: "I snapped the stopwatch and timed three clicks. I knew it was a record. I did not know how much." He repeated the act, with the same result. "Then I grabbed the slide rule extrapolated my calibration curve again and read 231 mph. 'Will they believe it?' was our first thought."

Dunn admits that a few skeptics have always scoffed at the possibility of a wind that strong. "But nature is unpredictable, has incredible force and surprises us all the time," he says.

Peter Crane, observatory program director, says: "I'm thinking of putting on a black arm band."

But Jack Halpin, the current staff meteorologist whose first weather job was with the Navy on Guam, said: "I'm not surprised, because of the typhoons out there."

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