Battling the Elements

2016-08-19 09:27:22.000 – Tom Padham, Weather Observer/Meteorologist


With summer slowly coming to an end and winter just around the corner on the summit I find myself thinking of some of my most memorable weather events on the Rockpile. I’ve worked up here for roughly 3 and a half years now, and seen more than my fair share of weather, from severe summer thunderstorms to complete whiteout conditions and category 3 hurricane force winds.

I love all the weather I get to experience up here on the summit, but I do have a least favorite: ice storms. Any kind of mixed precipitation can make our observations very complicated and also very unpleasant to be outside. Imagine sleet and freezing rain combined with winds over 100 mph: the sleet can be downright painful even with several layers of clothing, and the freezing rain can rapidly accrete as glaze ice all over.

Back when I used to work nights I have several memories of very impressive ice storms on the summit. One that I think describes what it’s like to not only work up here but also live on the summit occurred two years ago on the eve of Thanksgiving. Temperatures on the summit had been steadily rising through the evening as a strong warm front advanced into the White Mountains, with snow initially changing over to sleet and finally freezing rain. Temperatures made it to near 30°F and then remained steady as heavy rounds of freezing rain fell along with thick fog and visibility less than 50 feet. All the while winds out of the southeast were frequently gusting to near 100 mph, causing the highest rates of glaze ice accrual I had ever seen at roughly 5 inches per hour.

Glaze ice is like the clear ice in your freezer: liquid water that freezes with little in the way of air droplets, and is much heavier and harder to remove than the rime ice we frequently see on the summit from cloud droplets. By late in the night there were several feet of this ice everywhere, and I was exhausted from just trying to keep up with it. Luckily we’re never alone up here, and I reluctantly woke up our intern Adam to give me a hand. Together we used the large rubber mallets we affectionately call “hammers of Thor” and began knocking off these huge chunks of ice that were definitely a safety concern. Some of the ice blocks were much larger than a man and likely weighed a few hundred pounds. With high winds ongoing we had to be extremely careful to be sure no one was downwind of these massive blocks of ice as they came crashing down.

After feeling like I had done battle with the elements for nearly the entire night, I realized it was Thanksgiving morning and I had to start the turkey! We normally don’t have volunteers cooking for us during the holidays, so all of the staff pitches in with the cooking. Later that evening we all enjoyed a great Thanksgiving meal (and the turkey turned out great!) and I had a chance to tell the story of one of my most memorable nights on the summit.

I’m looking forward to battling the elements again this winter!


Tom Padham, Weather Observer/Meteorologist

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