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Wind blown: 231 mph wind was recorded on Mount Washington 80 years ago

By Tom Eastman
MOUNT WASHINGTON — Here in the mountains of New Hampshire, April 12 has special meaning, as it was on that date in 1934 that the World Record Wind of 231 miles per hour was recorded by the staff of the then two-year-old Mount Washington Observatory.
The record was broken in 1996 at Barrow Island, Australia, during Typhoon Olivia, according to a report released Jan. 29, 2010, by the World Meteorological Organization. According to the report, the new record stands at 253 miles per hour.

Like the falling of the Old Man of the Mountain in May 2003, the breaking of the record saddened many Granite Staters. But with typical resolve, they got over both developments — and continue to honor both.
A memorial was built at the base of the Old Man in Franconia. And while no major events are planned for April 12, the memories of the record wind and the Obs crew that recorded it live on.
 
Henley: Observatory continues its work
As the 80th anniversary approached, Scot Henley, executive director of the non-profit, member-supported Mount Washington Observatory, took time this week to reflect on the original milestone and what it has meant to the observatory as well as New Hampshire residents.
“First,” said Henley Thursday, “I think it’s important to make the distinction that Mount Washington has the distinction of having the ‘fastest wind ever recorded by man.‘ While the Barrow Island record wind (recorded by remote sensors on an uninhabited island during a typhoon) was indeed certified by the World Meteorological Organization, ours is a truly human story. It was our 1934 staff who braved the elements, buckled down and weathered the storm, physically did the brutal work of de-icing the anemometer in 180 mph winds, and witnessed and captured that record-setting data. We did the work, we told the tale, and that feat earned the fledgling Mount Washington Observatory international acclaim. It was a remarkable feat.”
According to the World Meteorological Organization, the Mount Washington 231 mph wind remains the fastest wind ever recorded in the Northern and Western Hemispheres.
If there was anything to be salvaged from the news about a new world record, Henley said that the wind in Australia was recorded by an instrument, and not by a crew manning an extreme weather station as is the case with Mount Washington.

So, that's something.
There is no formal distinction within World Meteorological Organization’s guidelines between “by man” and “by remote equipment,” but Mount Washington’s wind record is something that is special to the organization, the state and to the meteorological community as a whole, according to Henley.
“While the record wind cemented the viability of our organization and confirmed the scientific value of having a manned presence on the mountain, Mount Washington Observatory is much more than that single moment in history,” said Henley. “Our core function is to advance public knowledge of the natural systems that create the earth’s weather and climate. It is important work, and we are striving to be more and more effective and impactful with each passing year.”
 The Obs, as locals refer to the organization, now has a research partnership with Plymouth State University which Henley says will result in a better understanding of the effects of climate change on the region.
“Armed with a better understanding of that critical issue, we anticipate that our research will better inform economic and environmental decision-making in our region in the future,” noted Henley.
He added that the observatory's education efforts, which include classroom programs, distance learning, interactive science museums and its website, aim to advance scientific knowledge and literacy. However, he said, the impact made goes much deeper than that.
“Through these programs, we also hope to inspire and ignite a spark in the minds of young people,” said Henley. “If those children go on to pursue a career path in science, technology or math, we will have made a tremendous impact. To prosper in the future, the nation needs to grow more scientists. We are proud of our work thus far, and we hope to continue educating and inspiring young people for many years to come.”  
The observatory operates its Weather Discovery Center on Main Street in North Conway, which provides daily interactive hookups with the observatory's summit crew, as well as meteorological and historical displays — including a replica of the summit stage office that housed the Obs crew when the World Record Wind was recorded.
The Obs currently is in the midst of upgrading its summit museum, which is to open in June with a new theme of “Extreme Mount Washington.” It will feature interactive exhibits, including a simulated SnowCat ride. Mount Washington Observatory’s mountaintop museum welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each summer, making it the busiest museum in the entire state of New Hampshire — despite only being open during warm weather months.
“Major renovations of our mountaintop museum and website are nearly complete, and will result in dramatic improvements to their effectiveness in delivering educational content,” noted Henley, adding, “We are a local organization with national reach, and we are proud to deliver the awe and excitement of Mount Washington to fans and visitors far and wide.”

The story of April 12, 1934
The story of the former Mount Washington world record wind is found on the observatory website:
“During a wild April storm in 1934, a wind gust of 231 miles per hour (372 kilometers per hour) pushed across the summit of Mount Washington. This wind speed still stands as the all-time surface wind speed observed by man record. Below are excerpts from then-observer Alex McKenzie's book, “The Way It Was,” which accounts in detail the experience of documenting and living to tell the tale of a 231 mph wind.
Tuesday, April 10, 1934
The sun rose on April 10, 1934, ushering in a typical April day atop Mount Washington. Normally, the rest of New England welcomes the warmth of spring during a typical April, but winter keeps hold on the high peaks of New Hampshire's Presidential Range well into May in most years.
The staff at the fledgling Mount Washington Observatory, including Salvatore Pagliuca, Alex McKenzie and Wendell Stephenson managed to make it through their second full winter on the mountain. However, they were anxiously awaiting the coming of spring, with its more moderate temperatures and wind. Before the week was out, those men would not only get another severe taste of winter, they would be a part of one of the most intense storms in recorded history.
April 10 was the tight-knit summit crew's first day without Robert Stone, one of their coworkers who was injured in a skiing accident. He was taken down the mountain on a toboggan on April 9 to seek further medical attention on his severely bruised hip. Down a man, they would have to get by on their own for a while, with some help from their guests, Arthur Griffin and George Leslie.
On this April Tuesday, a weak storm system located over the western Great Lakes was slowly approaching New England. In addition, another batch of energy was located off the coast of North Carolina. Even more importantly, a huge ridge of high pressure was in place over eastern Canada and the northern Atlantic. On the summit of Mount Washington, April 10 was uneventful.
"April 10. A perfect day. Cloudless and calm. Hazy. Sun dogs at 5:30 p - a refraction phenomenon of no special importance." — Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
Wednesday, April 11, 1934
The large ridge of high pressure continued to build on April 11, causing a major blocking pattern over the ocean. As a result, the energy east of the Carolinas was forced to retrograde to the northwest, combining with the developing system over the Great Lakes.
Pagliuca, Stephenson and McKenzie, along with their guests, awoke to a brilliant sunrise early on April 11. The coal stove in the Auto Road's Stage Office (the observatory's early home) took the chill off the room.
"Hardly did we realize as we were enjoying a fine view of the Atlantic Ocean that we were to experience during the next 48 hours one of the worst storms ever recorded in the history of any observatory." — Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
The relatively clear skies gave way to clouds, increasing rapidly by afternoon. Fog obscured the summit by evening and rime ice formed up to one foot thick. The observatory felines all huddled near the coal stove in the late afternoon, the warmest spot in the tiny building. Cats were at home around the Observatory in 1934, as they are today. Oompha and her five kittens; along with Ammonuisance, visiting from the AMC's Lakes of the Clouds hut; Elmer, the timid one; and Manx, a tailless cat like Tikky from the first winter atop Mount Washington, all kept the summit crew company.
With high pressure building more and more to the north and east, and the low pressure becoming stronger to the west, an abnormally tight pressure gradient was forming to the north and east of the storm system. Pressure gradient is the change in pressure over some distance (either horizontally or vertically) with respect to a point in space. A tight pressure gradient results in air rushing quickly from high to low pressure.
"The meteorological notes for today do not say much. They only show a falling pressure, normal temperature, generally in 'rough frost forming' clouds, and rapidly increasing wind. Yes, rapidly increasing to values never dreamed before." - Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
At this point, winds on the summit were building stronger, reaching a max of 136 mph. Although well above hurricane-strength, there was no need to have the staff maintain a wide-awake, round-the-clock watch. Stephenson volunteered to take the overnight shift, since Pagliuca enjoyed taking the morning measurements and McKenzie was responsible for hours of radio tests throughout the day.
Thursday, April 12, 1934
"There was no doubt this morning that a super-hurricane, Mt. Washington style, was in full development." — Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
After taking a short nap, Stephenson awoke to find that it was 4 a.m. Although groggy, he knew that the wind sounded louder and stronger, so he checked the recorder. He needed to convert the recorded reading to the true value according to the instrument's correction curve, and some quick math pointed to an average wind speed of only 105 mph. It was clearly less than he expected. This meant one thing-the instrument was hampered by ice buildup.
Stephenson suited up, grabbed a wooden club and headed for the door. The intense wind created so much pressure that he was knocked to the floor as he opened the door. He struggled as he made his way to the ladder. The wind was at his back, and actually helped him maintain solid footing on the ladder. With dozens of blows, he cleared the accumulated ice from the anemometer. He dropped the club by accident, and it sailed off into the fog towards the Tip Top House.
Back inside, he flipped on the recorder and began timing the clicks from the telegraph sounder. After three tries, he verified that the wind now topped 150 mph.
The pieces were coming together for a major weather event. On this day, the ridge over the Atlantic and the storm over the eastern Great Lakes had become even stronger. More importantly, the pressure gradient between these two systems was extremely tight on the northeast portion of the low. This was causing very strong and extremely rare southeast winds.
"I dropped all other activities and concentrated on observations. Everyone in the house was "mobilized' as during a war attack and assigned a job. The instruments were watched continuously so that they may give a continuous and accurate record of the various meteorological elements at work. The anemometer was particularly watched. A full tank of gasoline made us feel good." - Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
As the day wore on, winds grew stronger and stronger. Frequent values of 220 mph were recorded between Noon and 1 p.m., with occasional gusts of 229 mph. Then, at 1:21 p.m. on April 12, 1934, the extreme value of 231 mph out of the southeast was recorded. This would prove to be the highest natural surface wind velocity ever officially recorded by means of an anemometer, anywhere in the world.
"'Will they believe it?' was our first thought. I felt then the full responsibility of that startling measurement. Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right? Was the stopwatch accurate?" - Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
Extremely strong winds were recorded later in the afternoon and evening of the 12th and then the storm slowly moved north and entered a weakening phase.
The storm lasted only one day. Some snow was recorded along with severe icing. The anemometer used to record the record wind was a heated anemometer designed special for Mount Washington. It was constructed in Cambridge Mass., and tested in the wind tunnel at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
After the wind measurement, the anemometer was run through a number of tests by the National Weather Bureau and the historic measurement of 231 mph was confirmed to be a valid reading.”
• • •
Dr. Peter Crane, curator of the observatory's Gladys Brooks Memorial Library, penned further thoughts on the observatory's website regarding the significance of  the former World Record Wind:
“First and foremost, the World Record Wind was a testimony of the real extremes that can rule on Mount Washington. Significant cold, abundant snowfall, dense fog, heavy icing, and exceptional winds are a prominent feature of Mount Washington's environment. Yes, there are colder places, such as Antarctica, and snowier places, such as some peaks in the Cascade Range. However, Mount Washington, a small peak by global standards, really does have weather that can rival some of the most rugged places on earth. There are days each winter when the combination of life-threatening weather factors on Mount Washington is remarkably similar to weather extremes which have been recorded in the polar regions and on peaks three or four times Mount Washington's height. The World Record Wind [was] one benchmark testifying to the mountain's truly severe weather.
"The World Record Wind [was] also a testimony to the dedication and diligence of the early crews of the observatory. A part of the challenge of science is to observe and reliably record that which we study. For the Observatory, that means to monitor and to accurately measure the weather. Some measurements are relatively easy to obtain, such as using standard thermometers to record temperatures. For other weather parameters, measurement can be very challenging. To be able to accurately record the winds of Mount Washington, which are typically high and gusty, and to be able to do so during a severe icing event, is no simple matter. It is incredibly difficult and dangerous to climb atop a building in winds greater than 180 miles per hour, all to be sure an anemometer is free from rime. The fact that the 1934 observatory crew could accurately measure a wind of this magnitude, during a period of very heavy glaze icing, is a tribute to their planning and engineering acumen, as well as to their commitment to establishing and maintaining this remote scientific outpost.
"The story of the World Record Wind is also an inspiration to observatory staff today. In 1934, not even two years after the observatory was established, the observatory staff was given a remarkable test and passed with flying colors. They anticipated a great challenge and rose to the occasion. Their good work serves as an example to us today and must spur us on to do things as noteworthy. As proud as we are of the achievements of the Observatory staff of the 1930s, we cannot rest on their laurels; we must earn our own.”
• • •
For more information, go to www.mountwashington.org or call the Weather Discovery Center in North Conway at 356-2137.
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