Fifteen Years of Observing Mount Washington’s Weather

2021-03-08 20:17:38.000 – Ryan Knapp, Observer/Staff Meteorologist


Just over fifteen years ago (December 28, 2005), I started working at the Mount Washington Observatory. I started as an intern but in February 2006, I was hired on as a “temporary-full time” observer. What this title meant was I was hired as an Observer but I had until what would have been the end of my internship (May 2006) for the Observatory and I to decide whether or not I should continue as a full time observer. Well, since I am writing this comment now, I guess you could say we both agreed that a full time position would be mutually beneficial.
When I reached my 5 year anniversary, I reflected on the changes that had occurred since I started. Then, when I reached my 10 year anniversary, I once again reflected on the changes that had occurred. Well, this being another 5 year block of time, I started to think of how many things have changed now in my 15 years working on the summit. Observatory staff, including myself, have touched upon many of these in past comments but just in case you missed them, here is what’s changed in my fifteen years here:
-The Bombardier snow tractor went from an unheated, bench-seated, yellow “bus” to the semi-heated, captain-seated, white “leopard” Bombardier that we use today.
-The blue and white 4×4 van that was in use when I started got a bump up to a newer-but-used black and white 4×4 van
-The 4×4 bench seat truck with a flat blade in the front was here before I started working however, our truck just got upgraded this past week (via donations earlier this year). So this coming spring we will be using a new 4×4 truck with an extended cab and a v-shaped blade in the front.
-When I started, a limited water storage capacity during the winter months meant the rule of “if it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush in down” was etched in our minds. We were limited to one military shower per week but most of us opted not to take one at all. In short, water in was fine but water out was as limited as possible. There were times where buckets were looked at for an option even when the tanks were getting full near the end of the winter season. Today, New Hampshire State Parks (whom we lease our space from) has a year-round septic system installed. As a result, water restrictions are a complete mystery to all the new observers, volunteers, and interns I work beside since water out is typically no longer an issue.
-Due to the limited water out rule, toilets were pressurized to assist the high volume to get to the tanks. So our toilet was up on a platform with a bunch of pressurizing equipment. This system was eventually replaced when the septic went in but the elevated platform remained. However, a few years back, the bathroom was gutted and now the toilet sits flush to the ground. Also gone – the tub (which I only recall one person ever using) which is now a shower stall.
-Our bunks were crowded and poorly sound insulated rooms. They were uncomfortable and hard to sleep in. But now they have been overhauled and I can now get a solid 6 hours (or sometimes more) of sleep and not the 3-4 I used to get sleeping during the day in them.
-Looking around the Observatory space, there have been a ton of changes with not a single room looking like it did when I first started here; I could probably write an entire comment just on them. But at least the sugar container remains; fun fact – it is one of the oldest items on the summit still in continuous use spanning decades and multiple generations of Observers.
-The hum and smell of the power generators was like a giant kerosene-powered white noise machine. The “switch over” between the two generators was a regular occurrence. And lights were on everywhere to make them run more efficiently. Now with a buried power line, nights are only noisy when winds are high and the air smells crisp. And all unnecessary lights are turned off to cut down on power costs.
-Our logo went from a blue and magenta 80s/90s look to the red and white modernized one that plasters the very website you are on.
-Our website is completely different. In fact, this is the fifth iteration of how it looks since I got here. And the look and feel of the website that was in place when I started here can nowadays be outdone by most teenagers with a weeknight of coding. With each iteration things were sometimes added and other times removed to reflect the changing online demographics.
-Weather models have improved as computer processing speeds have improved. Some weather models have been discontinued while others didn’t even exist yet when I started. When I started, the Higher Summits Outlook only went out 36 hours and was only done in the morning. However, because of improvements in the various models along with internet speeds and connection reliability, our forecast now goes out to 48 hours and is updated twice a day.
-Time sheets were due Wednesday, then on Mondays, and now on Sundays.
-Work weeks could mean just that, back to back weeks. There was one time I was up here three weeks in a row. The only ones with the guaranteed week on, week off scheduling back then were the interns. Nowadays, we all are on a steady week on week off schedule with little to no exceptions (except if we take vacation time-off).
-Crews were two observers and (usually) one intern. And with the staggering schedules, no two weeks would have the same crew. This meant there was no set crews and we got to work with and know everyone. Now, there are three observers and one to two interns on each shift and we are on the same crew for long periods of time with very little interactions going on except on Wednesday and the occasional visits during off weeks.
-Volunteers were hard to come by. I remember several weeks during my first few years when we couldn’t find any volunteers for up here. Now there are waiting lists for particular dates and from what I’ve heard, when we don’t have a volunteer up here, people freak out.
-Computer screens and the television were thick, heavy, hot, and deep CRT’s with what the modern era would call “small”; 3:4 ratio screen sizes. Now we have narrow, cool-running, light, and relatively thin LCD’s which are 16:9 widescreen and most computers now have two to three monitors connected with one even allowing touch input.
-Smartphones and tablets weren’t around. Cell phones were and were either “clamshell” or “candy bar” shaped however service for any of them was non-existent across most of the northern NH. So when you came up, you were disconnected, which was kind of nice to be completely honest; kind of miss those days at times.
-Social media – didn’t exist!
-Incandescent bulbs and neon bulbs used to light our workspace but now LED or halogen bulbs have more or less replaced them.
-Where once VHS’s and Playstation 2 were the only things being watched on our TV, we eventually got a DVD collection. And now there is Video on Demand (Netflix, Hulu, etc). To think when I first started, major and/or live events like the Super Bowl or NASA missions had to be missed when up on the summit and now we can typically stream it in real-time.
-The server room was spacious then got filled up as technology came about, but then shrunk back down as technology improved, got smaller, and more efficient.
Distance Learning didn’t exist. When I started, the only distance learning equipment we had was a lone Polycom which was used for a few connections with the Weather Discovery Center from time to time. And live connections with anyone else (schools, news, etc) couldn’t happen as the connection speeds were not able to handle them. As time progressed and internet speeds increased, we secured grants and donations to build an entire command center for the Educational Observers to allow for live video feeds with various schools and news stations around the world. But just like the server room, as technology and the ways we communicate evolved, so did our technology and now we have high resolution cameras and a touch screen along with apps like Zoom that allow us to better communicate and interact with distant people and all of it in a much smaller footprint.
-The cog was running all coal when I started and now it is powered by biodiesel (with the exception of one (or two) coal train(s) a day in the summer).
-Various structures and buildings have been torn down and removed; looking at historical pictures spanning decades, this is one of the lowest amounts of structures present on the summit.
-Summit and valley crews are completely different than when I started. If I counted correctly, on the summit alone I have worked with 2 kitty cats, 6 Summit Managers, 18 Bombardier (aka snow tractor) Operators, 24 museum attendants, 33 Observers, 123 interns/externs (excluding a handful of temp-interns that only came up for a week or two for school), and 300+ volunteers (some of which have been coming up here as long as I have been working).
-Specific job titles and specific qualifications didn’t exist. We were all just Weather Observers. Now we have a staff meteorologist/observer, distance learning specialist/observer and research specialist/observer on each shift.
-Partnerships with companies have come and go. While I hate seeing those partnerships end, I have enjoyed each of them as we pull some awesome companies and individuals on board.
-The popularity of Seek the Peak has expanded. I remember a time when we had left over goodie bags believe it or not. Now we have to put a cap on the number of participants.
-“Automated” equipment we have owned and were testing are no longer around due to our destructive winds and ice. Even the equipment we use regularly use has gone through replacement and repairs. And we are in the process of testing out a new version of our tried and true pitot system.
-Research projects like Airmap, COSMO, and others either no longer exist or have had their requirements changed as technology improved.
-The ARVP had started by the time arrived but now we have expanded it into our White Mountain Mesonet.
-Our Weather Discovery Center in North Conway closed and its exhibits loaned out to other museums in the state (like the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH)
I’m sure I could go on and on but I think I have touched upon the big changes I have seen. Hopefully you can see how much has changed in fifteen year’s time. Since I am all about photography and history (it was my minor), I like to look at historical pictures from the 1930s and 1940s and really see how much has changed on the summit. And who know how much more will change in the next year, five, or ten. However, while crew’s, living quarters, quality of life, job titles, technology, etc are continuously evolving and changing up here, one thing has remained and will remain constant up here even after me and this crew departs: the recording and reporting of the weather from the summit of Mt Washington, NH
Meteorologist Ryan Knapp as an intern in 2005 and as an observer today in 2021Ryan Knapp – as an Intern (left) in 2005 vs as Senior Staff Meteorologist (right) in 2021


Ryan Knapp, Observer/Staff Meteorologist

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