Cold Cold Cold… and Cold

2015-01-09 17:03:39.000 – Caleb Meute, Weather Observer/Education Specialist


If you live in New England/the eastern half of the United States, or watch the news at all or read the observer comments, you know that this has been a cold week. For me, I do not know exactly what the coldest temperatures I have experienced prior to this week are, but what I do know now is that they would not even come close to comparing to what we have experienced here on the summit of Mount Washington. The prior observer comments have discussed the reasons for these cold temperatures and the crazy week of weather that we have had up here. I am simply going to discuss what it feels like to be in temperatures that cold and how I am so thankful for our sponsor, Eastern Mountain Sports. I can honestly say that when I have been wearing all of my gear outside, I can hardly even tell that the temperatures have been at the frightening levels we have been experiencing.

To quickly give you an idea of how intense and dangerous temperatures at 30 degrees below zero are, I will explain a quick observation I took while going outside Wednesday evening. The temperatures had dropped to the 20’s below zero, and with snow showers popping up on radar, I wanted to quickly go outside and see if they had begun on the summit. I put my gear on in a rush and I ventured outside into the elements. Usually I would put a beanie on, with a hood over it, and my goggles sealing them together. I did not put my hood up so my head was only covered with a beanie. Only having been outside for two minutes, I came inside and realized immediately that my head was throbbing and I had instantly developed a headache. Granted, the headache did not last long, especially when I got back into the heated observatory. This was my first exposure to temperatures that cold so a lesson was learned. Rather than feeling stupid, I prefer the “glass half full” method of looking at things. Twenty or so minutes later I went outside for the actual hourly observation fully prepared and I was fine. I was fine in every way except for the fact that air at those temperatures is unbelievably dry. That type of air literally takes your breath away when you are outside in it, and you certainly do not want to be exposed to it for longer than you have to be. Wednesday night, the lowest temperature we recorded was 34 degrees below zero and that was coupled with winds in the 50-60 mph range, which produced a wind chill of 81 degrees below zero! That could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as low as 2 minutes.

In yesterday’s comment, Kyle provided links to view our experiment with frozen bubbles and boiling water instantly turning to ice crystals. I definitely recommend viewing these videos as they are great examples to show how intense temperatures that low truly are. The bubbles consist of a soap detergent and water solution. Once you blow bubbles into that type of freezing cold air, you can actually see ice crystals expanding around the bubble before your eyes and you can see it hardening. With warmer air inside the bubble compared to outside, you will notice the bubble rising through the air initially, “Hot air rises”. Once the newly frozen bubble falls to the ground, it rolls around like a tumbleweed. You can even pick the bubble up and it resembles a ball of cellophane. The boiling water to ice crystals experiment is a bit more complicated but there is a fairly easy explanation. Basically, boiling water is emitting a lot more water vapor than what is already in the air. This is especially true when temperatures are as low as they were for us at the time of experiment, -29 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of this, when you throw the boiling water into the air, it breaks up into much smaller droplets, thus providing increased amounts of surface area to evaporate. When the boiling water droplets hit the frigid cold air, they form into a cloud of micro-sized droplets of water, which freeze almost instantly into a cloud of tiny ice crystals and freezing fog.


Caleb Meute, Weather Observer/Education Specialist

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