Battles with Blowing Snow
2019-02-18 10:57:20.000 – Ian Bailey, Weather Observer/Education Specialist
Mt. Washington is home to the World’s Worst Weather. If you are from the area, a frequent visitor or have been to the summit, you have likely heard this before. And there is a lot of truth in that statement! We see insane wind speeds throughout the year, frequently gusting to or above 100 mph. We see incredible amounts or snow and ice, with the snow pack sometimes lasting well into the summer! And for 2/3 of the year, we have fog with low visibility! Over the last 9 months, I have learned a lot about these intense conditions, and certainly have grown as an operational forecaster because of that. But as the weather over the last week has proven, there is always more to learn and always room to grow regarding extreme weather.
It has been an incredibly gray shift, considering that we’ve had 3 low pressure systems blast through over the last 7 days. We went 5 days (up until Saturday) without really having seen the sun, which was difficult to deal with mentally. But fog, snow and strong winds are typical over our 8-month winter season. Interestingly enough, despite 3 low pressures moving through, we did not have a lot of snow accumulation. Especially with the first low on Wednesday, before which there were murmurings that we could see upwards of 2 feet of snow. We saw 5 inches.
The winds have been some of the lightest our shift has seen so far this year! We started off in the 50-70 gusting to 90 mph range at the beginning of the week, which is typical. But we’ve dropped down to less than 20 mph over the last 2 days! Even the temperatures have been “moderate”. We’ve been mostly above 0, and even got into the mid 20’s a few days ago! Needless to say, when you look at what are typically our 3 biggest weather-related concerns regarding transportation, conditions really have been quite tame.
The Hays Chart showing incredibly low winds for the winter season
So why is it, then, that we’ve had to cancel several of our upbound excursions during this past week? What has made it so difficult to get to the summit, considering we’ve had wind, temperatures, and accumulations totals far off from what one would consider extreme? The answer to this question has been the big learning experience for me this week, especially with me working as the lead during the day.
Blowing snow, from an operational forecast standpoint, is merely an obscuration. It’s reported when you have snow lifted and whipped around in the air above 6 feet as a result of the wind. When winds are high, this can in fact obscure your visibility pretty well, hence why it’s denoted as an obscuration. But compared to the typical fog and snowfall we see up here, I had come to see blowing snow as simply an additional feature to current weather conditions; what I would consider a “oh yea, and that was happening too…” observation.
That’s a big mistake when considering making your way to the summit. Blowing snow can be a much, much bigger deal.
We haven’t had much issue regarding our shift making it to the summit this season. We had 1 trip at the beginning where the other shift got stuck for 2 extra days resulting from thick fog, high winds and heavy snowfall. That set the precedent for me. If the fog isn’t thick, if the winds aren’t high, and the snowfall is light, then there shouldn’t be much issue in reaching the summit. I knew snow drifts on the road presented an issue. But with our powerful Snowcat and incredible operators, we’ve been able to push through way more often than not. So when I forecasted the weather for the trips this weekend, noted the light snow accumulation, light fog and lower wind speeds, I was more than confident that there wouldn’t be any issues. It even became a point of contention between Adam and I, with Adam far less confident about the success in the trips making it. The difference between the two of us came in the form of experience, in that Adam had witnessed what I was going through already, and knew exactly how bad the blowing snow could get further down the road, and how thick the fog could be compared to the summit.
And that was the reality. Up here on the summit, accumulation totals were less than 3 inches, less than 1 inch, or none at all! Winds went from 60 mph, to 40 mph, to 20 mph! And on Saturday, we were in and out of the fog with sunshine at times throughout the day! And I was totally confounded when reports came up from below that the road conditions were too bad, and the Snowcat was turning around. I didn’t have the perspective at the time; couldn’t see the conditions they were stuck in. It wouldn’t be until later on Saturday that I could see exactly how bad it was down the road.
The view looking back down the road while trying to fight through the snow. Photo courtesy of Will Broussard
The above picture comes from Will Broussard, our Outreach Coordinator and trip leader for Saturday’s Edutrip. As you can see, despite patches of blue sky above, the blowing snow was nearly obscuring visibility completely. And what’s worse, it was drifting fast and heavy back on to the road, eliminating a lot of the work the Snowcat drivers had been trying to put in to make the road passable.
You see, I had failed to recognize how much impact the finer details of these light conditions would have. Yes, we had low accumulation totals. But the snow was light and loose, and could easily be moved by light winds. The winds themselves were light, but their direction changed repeatedly from Southwest, to Northwest with each passing low. This would blow snow down off the summit cone below the road, and the Northwest wind would blow it all back up on to the road, essentially drifting it in twice. And while we would be in and out of the fog on the summit, the thicker center of the fog bank below added the unnecessary “pea soup” conditions on top of the poor visibility from the blowing snow.
The end result? Massive snow drifts completely covering the road, and near 0 visibility for the operators trying to clear it. It became a non-stop, uphill battle with conditions that were likely more than exhausting to deal with. And without being able to observe any of it first hand, we were mostly in the dark up here at the station about how bad it truly was. Now, after being able to see evidence of it, it is quite clear why the trips have had the trouble they had.
I feel bad, as an operational forecaster, and have been apologizing for my mistakes. I had far too much optimism in my forecasting and projected a bit too much confidence in the trip success. And while I didn’t know how bad it could get in that sense, I have that experience now and will carry it forward with me as a forecaster. It was an important lesson to learn, and has become an essential part of the forecast development process I use up here on the summit. And it should be expected, as this is home to some of the World’s worst weather! I’m sure the details of the trips will be worked out going forward as well. But at least we all got to witness first hand, that even when the conditions “aren’t that bad”, well, they really can be “that bad” after all.
Thank you to the Snowcat drivers for all of your hard, exhausting work these past few days battling the conditions. And thank you to our trip leaders and participants for your patience with the adverse conditions. All of you are greatly appreciated, and hopefully we’ll see you up here soon!
Ian Bailey, Weather Observer/Education Specialist