A Sea of Clouds

2012-12-03 18:43:28.000 – Mike Dorfman,  Summit Intern


This morning, I woke up to typical Mount Washington weather. We were completely socked in the fog and winds were gusting above hurricane force. One of my favorite times on the summit is during moments of patchy fog in high winds, which we had later this morning as the fog on the summit began to clear. It’s hard to imagine how fast the wind is actually traveling unless you have a reference, which, in this case, is bits of fog flying over the relatively clear mountain.

As the summit cleared through the day, the valley remained under a dense deck of clouds below us. Throughout the day, it seemed as if we were an island in a sea of clouds with Mt Mansfield poking its summit above the sea to our West. What caused this sea of clouds below us? Many of you may already know, but for those of you who don’t, let me explain.

If air cools to a certain temperature, called the dew point, a cloud forms. Normally, this happens as air rises and cools as it decompresses, forming clouds above us. Frequently in the winter, air cooled on the slopes of a mountain will sink down into the valleys. This air then slides underneath the air that was previously in the valley, forcing it to rise and condense. This is why you may often find the coldest temperatures on a calm night in the valleys and not on the summits where they often are. This is also often the reason why valley fog exists.

It just goes to show that when it’s an overcast, foggy day in the valley, it is not necessarily the same up here. If you want the chance to see spectacular sunsets over a sea of clouds, consider signing up for one of our Edutrips. They are themed trips that spend a night on the summit, taking the Observatory’s snow tractor up and down the Auto Road. These trips allow participants to explore the summit and participate in a variety of activities revolving around the trip’s theme. Both sleeping arrangements in the Observatory’s cozy and warm living quarters and a delicious dinner cooked by the summit’s volunteers are included.

Observer footnote: Our year-end fund drive is taking place through December 31, and we need your support. Please make a tax-deductible donation of any amount here. As a nonprofit, people-powered institution since our founding in 1932, we need your help to continue our work! Thank you in advance for your generosity.


Mike Dorfman,  Summit Intern

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