An Observer Reflects on 2023

By Francis Tarasiewicz

2023 will undoubtedly go down in history as a year marked by extraordinary occurrences. From prolonged periods of intense warmth pushing the planet beyond the critical 1.5°C threshold to instances of flooding, wildfires, and unexpected polar vortex intrusions, the past year was a rollercoaster of meteorological phenomena for Earth’s inhabitants.

At the Home of the World’s Worst Weather, where resilience in the face of extremes is a way of life, we embrace weather that tests our limits. For more than 90 years, the summit has attracted scientists positioned between thrill-seekers and geeks on the Venn diagram. Interestingly, 2023 marked my first full year on the summit, offering me the opportunity to witness numerous unprecedented and record-breaking events. These extremes appeared to shadow my colleague Karl and me, as we found ourselves on the front lines of several historic events, ranging from months of haze and poor air quality to a close brush with a hurricane, making 2023 a year defined by chaos.

In this blog, I aim to reflect on the tumultuous weather of the past year. Below, I’ll delve into my top five personal favorite weather events from this extreme year, which not only impacted my own experiences but potentially had implications for global climate as well. Without further ado, let’s rewind and revisit the unforgettable moments of the past year.

5.) Haze from Wildfires

A record warm and dry spring served as the prelude to a profound transformation of the expansive Boreal Forests in northern Canada. Once lush green sanctuaries, these forests became ripe for large and unprecedented wildfires. As the summer season unfolded, dry thunderstorms gradually advanced northward, igniting more fires each passing day. Ordinarily, the smoke from such wildfires would be whisked eastward by the robust winds of the jet stream. However, 2023 presented a different scenario.

Unlike the typical strong jet stream, this year’s jet stream was weaker, allowing it to meander southward. This peculiar pattern rolled out the metaphorical red (or rather, acrid gray) carpet, allowing the smoke to spill into the lower 48 states. Apocalyptic scenes of smoke-blocked sunshine and horrific Air Quality Index (AQI) values took over the headlines as the fires persisted well into the fall. This particular event secures the fifth spot on my list, not due to any fondness for particulate matter but because of its prolonged and intense nature.

While summertime air typically carries its share of pollutants and tree pollen, low visibility during this season is not entirely unprecedented. However, the past summer was exceptional. Days with visibility exceeding 50 miles were a rarity, leading to our observations frequently being accompanied by the remark “HZ DSNT ALQDS.” This notation, typically reserved for instances when haze from smoke or pollutants limits visibility to less than 50 miles but more than 10 miles, became a near-constant addition to our records. On multiple occasions, visibility dipped low enough to classify haze as the prevailing weather phenomena, indicating that it was restricting visibility to less than 7 miles.

The impacts of wildfire smoke reached far beyond visibility concerns. With hundreds of thousands of summer visitors flocking to the White Mountains annually, it became apparent that the dense layer of suspended ash presented an enormous public health risk. For us forecasters, 2023 unfolded as a year marked by steep learning curves and a need to quickly learn how to convey previously unheard-of hazards. In this case, the hazard was particulate matter pollution.

On the east coast, we are accustomed to witnessing distressing scenes of wildfires and poor air quality in the western regions, often taking generally good air quality for granted. However, the sheer volume and frequency of smoky episodes forced me to learn the language of smoke-related hazards. While I am well-versed in describing the health impacts of cold weather, writing about the impacts of smoke and haze presented an entirely new challenge. It was during these moments that the realization dawned—2023 was shaping up to be a year of forecasting unlike any other. As I wrap up reflecting on my #5 weather event, I hope to never again have to incorporate warnings about pulmonary issues from smoke into a Higher Summits Forecast.

4.) Apr-May Rain to Heavy Snow

My number 4 event of 2023 was a good old-fashioned New England storm that turned our weekly shift change on its head with the power of inches of rain and feet of snow. This storm stood out to me because of how difficult it was to forecast. On the summit, the team and I expected a swift transition from periods of freezing rain and glaze ice to plain rain. What we got instead was a brutal 23-hour stretch of freezing rain. I struggled to keep up with the accumulation of glaze ice, which accumulated on every surface at a rate of nearly 6 inches per hour. While this may sound horrible, it’s what we observers live for and far better than what could have happened. Prior to the freezing rain, model guidance was suggesting that the summits were going to see anywhere from 7 to 10 inches of rainfall! Having some of that total fall as freezing rain helped reduce the worst impacts from flooding in the valleys.

The glaze ice was a double-edged sword, however, as the ice that coated the ground set the stage for significant runoff. While over half of the precipitation from the storm fell as freezing rain, temperatures eventually rose above freezing. The result was an impressive 3.1 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. The deluge resulted in significant runoff that managed to wash out over a quarter mile of the auto road. As if this wasn’t enough, the storm system eventually became strong enough to create its own supply of cold air. A lull in rainfall gave way to sleet, which gave way to heavy snowfall—this was the storm’s second act. High above the summits, a pocket of sub-zero air created the instability necessary to bury the summits in snow. Closer to the surface, an easterly flow helped funnel in moisture off the Atlantic. In the span of just a couple of days, the team and I measured an impressive 20.2 inches of new snow, sleet, and graupel. Ironically enough, this still is my highest storm total snowfall on the summit. The road washout combined with the heavy snow royally snarled up our standard shift change. Thankfully, the hardworking team at the Cog Railway came to our rescue, and we were able to ride down in style. I will never forget watching their massive snow blower cut through the 5-7 ft drifts like confectioner’s sugar. This storm brought about many core memories for me as an observer and forecaster and, quite honestly, humbled me. I also got to see firsthand how far our partners are willing to go to help us fulfill our mission and will be forever grateful for their hospitality and efforts.

Shift change with the Cog Railway in May.

3.) July/Summer Extreme Rainfall

The first half of 2023 came and went with snowfall, precipitation, and temperature records in ruin and just as Karl and I were catching our breath the atmosphere concocted another historic event. July 9th through 11th will be remembered for the incredible amounts of rainfall that fell over a wide swath of New England. Vermont, a flood-weary state that was really only just beginning to fully recover from the impacts of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, was the epicenter of this epic rainfall event. After an exceptionally wet May and June (150-250% of average), the stage was set for flooding, and the question became when, not if, flooding would occur.

The summit team got its first answer to the question of when around a week before the storm. I recall looking out into the longer-range computer model guidance (a strange hobby, I know) and feeling a pit in my stomach. The models were showing an exceptionally warm and humid airmass interacting with an area of low pressure that was going to track somewhere in New England. The feature may have been a week out, but alarm bells were already ringing.

Fast forward a couple of days, and our concerns greatly increased as the meteorologists at the Weather Prediction Center (WPC) highlighted much of the northeast in a moderate risk for excessive rainfall. These types of outlooks are reserved for more significant flooding events, and the WPC describes moderate risk days as days with “Numerous flash flooding events with significant events possible. Many streams may flood, potentially affecting larger rivers.” Even several days out, the WPC was expecting a significant event. Meteorologists’ fears came to a head at 5 pm on the 9th when the WPC issued an exceedingly rare High Risk outlook for central and northern Vermont. Like with high-risk outlooks for severe thunderstorms, this category is reserved for the very worst of events. This was also the first time a high-risk outlook was issued outside of a tropical cyclone. Unfortunately, the high risk verified as much of Vermont experienced the consequences of flash and river flooding. This event ranks in the top three for me because of my connections to Vermont. Having attended college at Northern Vermont University (now Vermont State College at Lyndon), I am very aware of how vulnerable Vermont is to flooding. Seeing the devastation in Montpelier was heart-wrenching, but equally important was the successful forecast and communication of risk from meteorologists and emergency managers. The forecast verified despite numerous sources of uncertainty, and improved forecasting methods no doubt saved numerous lives.

2.) Dec 18th

After a year of consistent above-average temperatures and record warmth, I was pleasantly surprised when November ended up four degrees below average. This was the coldest temperature anomaly in 2023, as most months ended up well above average, with temperature anomalies between 2 and 10 degrees above normal. Even better, this cold start was accompanied with actual bona fide snowstorms! One such storm dumped 15 inches of snow, 3 of which fell in the span of an hour! After such cold and snow, memories of previously warm and rainy winters began to slip into the back of my mind, that was until December 18th.

In New England, we are accustomed to large winter storms, more specifically storms that pass to the south of the region. These storms, called Nor’Easters, have the perfect track to deliver our big winter snows. By passing to the south of the area, the warmer marine air is kept out of the picture, but the moisture that results from it moves around the low pressure into colder air giving us our noteworthy snowfall totals. On December 18th, low pressure tracked to the west of the region. As a result, warm air flooded north, and even the summit saw temperatures well above freezing. Unfortunately, on this day I had the displeasure of measuring yet another record warm temperature of 41 degrees. This storm completely wiped out the snowpack for all of New England all the way up to its highest peaks. The story didn’t stop there. Due to warmth prior to the storm, the snowpack in the Whites and across New England’s summits was already near 32 degrees. Warm fog and heavy rains allowed the snow to melt almost instantly as the event got underway. The results in the surrounding valleys were catastrophic.

The snowmelt and inches of rain brought local rivers to crests unseen since Irene. The Saco River in North Conway reached an all-time high crest of 17.71 feet, bridges washed out, and area roads became rivers. The summit saw 4.1 inches of rain and a wind gust of 132 mph, but extremes like that are to be expected. This system makes the list as my #2 most memorable weather moment because of how widespread and far-reaching its impacts were. Power outages across New England numbered in the low millions as a freakishly strong low-level jet of 80-110 mph was able to mix close to the surface. This storm humbled many and unfortunately resulted in a handful of fatalities. I won’t soon forget having to pump out inches of water from the tower, or seeing most of our parking lot eroded from record high river levels. I will forever hate this storm as it showed me that a single rain event can, in the new climate, erase a season’s worth of snowfall.

1.) Cold Snap

The most memorable weather event of 2023 as a weather observer put myself and my hardworking team in the history books. It originated high in the Canadian Arctic and tied a 90-year record; it is something that I will never forget. I am, of course, talking about the short-lived but brutal cold snap of February 3rd and 4th. The story of this began a week and a half before the event. January 2023 was a whopping 10.3 degrees above normal. To say that I was eager to experience the true cold of a Mt. Washington winter was an understatement. I distinctly remember jokingly glancing at forecast depictions beyond 300 hours on the 25th of January as I was gearing up to head back home for shift change. In the world of forecasting, taking anything a model puts out after 7 days seriously is almost sacrilege. So when I saw the Global Forecast System (GFS) model output an arctic blast of -40 degrees extending from the high Arctic coming to New England around 10 days out I brought my coworker Karl over to the computer and jokingly said “wouldn’t that be nice”. He chuckled in agreement and after our weekly shift change meeting we headed home. Being the always-on weather geek I am I resolve to check the models a few times during my off week. On the day before shift change I loaded up the GFS and to my great surprise it still had that arctic blast except this time it was only 90 hours away. I excitedly texted my shift mates playfully and half-jokingly asking them if they were ready for -80 degree wind chills, little did I know how much colder it was actually going to be. Shift change on the 1st was the most somber shift change I can recall. Veteran observer Ryan Knapp warned us about everything that could go wrong with the expected cold. From gelled fuels to instrument failures, we were told to pay extra attention to safety as temperatures were forecast to fall to levels not seen since 1934.

Thursday came and the models put out increasingly bold predictions. By Thursday, models converged around a piece of the polar vortex rotating down from far northern Canada and delivering extreme cold to the entire region. Models converged around a solution of -47F as the coldest temp, our station’s record. That afternoon I issued my most intense Higher Summits Forecast ever. Given the gravity of the impending historic and perilous event, I did not mince words.

“Remember that even a minor error in these conditions could prove fatal. A simple slip, fogged goggles, or other small mishaps might swiftly escalate into a life-threatening situation. Also, keep in mind that none of the buildings on the higher summits will be accessible to the public. Finally, responding to emergencies in a timely manner will be extremely challenging for rescue services.”

Yes, it was that serious.

After releasing this forecast, we began receiving media calls. It started as a trickle – a local TV station here, an area newspaper there. Then, a bit later, the summit went viral. Twitter (now X, I guess?) was flooded with images of my forecast, and media interest soared. Names like Anderson Cooper, Good Morning America, and NBC Nightly News began filling our inboxes. It was showtime.

All the while, the temperature outside continued to drop. Thursday night featured a brief line of snow showers and squalls that signaled the onset of the temperature plunge. When I awoke for Friday’s first observation, the thermometer already read 25 degrees below zero. The rest of the day was a blur. I did no less than 20 media interviews, maintained instrumentation struggling under the burden of the cold, all while training an intern and keeping the facility safe. I don’t say this to brag; rather, it demonstrates the passion observers have for the summit and our data. In reality, I was merely in the right place at the right time.

During the afternoon, as I geared up for a routine observation, I heard a loud thud and the sound of wind. To my dismay, the lower tower door had flung open. The culprit was extreme cold, metal, and a rogue gust into the 120s. It took Karl, myself, and our two volunteers, Pat and Steve, to hold the door closed in hurricane-force winds while Nate from the State Park literally screwed the door shut. This moment takes the case as the most memorable not only of 2023 but of my life so far.

Friday night came, and as I prepared for some restless sleep, our thermometer was dipping into the -40s, and the wind chill read a mind-numbing 107 below. When this happened, our website crashed as we had over 2 million unique viewers.

Group picture of Alexis, Francis, Karl, Nate, Chris, Steve, and Pat after record cold event.

For more on the specific story of the cold wave, I strongly encourage you to read Karl’s blog. If you don’t, here are some notable events from that day:

• Temperatures at or below -45 °F for 13 straight hours

• The -47 °F reading (rounded) is the coldest in 89 years, tying our record low.

• Our lowest recorded slung temperature of -46.7 °F may be the lowest temperature ever measured in Mount Washington Observatory records, to the tenth of a degree, as the lowest temperature slung by the weather observers in January 1934 was -46.5 °F, as reported in their journals and a brief article published in the Monthly Weather Review in February 1934.

• Wind chills below -100 °F for 15.5 straight hours

• -109 °F was the lowest wind chill noted on our current conditions page, on at least three occasions

• Sustained winds greater than 82 mph for 28 straight hours, with a top gust of 127 mph

There are moments when we must rise to the occasion in the face of extremes, ensuring that the challenges they bring do not defeat us. I will forever be proud of the three-person summit team that, when faced with the coldest air since the original four observers, rose to the occasion. For instance, Karl stayed up for over 30 hours, aiding me in measuring our temperature by hand (he was bundled up, of course). Alexis, the night observer and introvert, went above and beyond, excelling with several media interviews. I will always be thankful for her help and cool-headedness as she took on the brutally cold night, mostly by herself.

In conclusion, 2023 has etched its place in history as a year of meteorological extremes that tested the resilience of us observers and many around the world. From the unprecedented haze caused by wildfires to a New England storm that defied forecasting expectations, and from extreme rainfall events to a humbling cold snap that tied a 90-year record, the year showcased the unpredictable nature of weather. As a weather observer, my experiences on the summit of Mount Washington provided front-row seats to these historic events. Each weather event presented unique learning opportunities. Looking back on my top five memorable weather moments, I am reminded of the importance of accurate forecasting, effective communication, and the unwavering dedication of the summit team in the face of adversity. As we reflect on the tumultuous weather of 2023, it serves as a stark reminder of the need for continued vigilance and preparedness in the face of an increasingly extreme climate.

For a review of 2023 weather statistics, view “2023 by the Numbers” by Weather Observer Ryan Knapp.

Mount Washington Observatory is a nonprofit research and educational institution. Our work in weather research relies on your financial support. If you value our mission, please consider supporting the Observatory today.

Find Older Posts