My Obs Journey: Beginning my Scientific Career in the Mountains
By Amy Cotter

As my fall internship at Mount Washington Observatory comes to a close, I find my last week as a summit intern to be both bittersweet and fulfilling. I’ve been on the summit every other week for the past 4 months, and as I reflect on my time here, I recall many memories, both good and challenging. I’ve had the unique opportunity to grow here both professionally and personally, from my forecasting skills to my research to recreating with my summit team to fixing malfunctioning instruments and shoveling in miserable conditions.

I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and have a passion for weather and environmental science, so the opportunity to combine my love for science and the mountains has been a very rewarding experience. I was raised hiking in New Hampshire and taught to be prepared for the wide range of potentially dangerous conditions in a location as unique as the White Mountains, which included always reviewing the Higher Summits Forecast before any hike. To now be able to participate in this ever-growing forecasting effort has been a remarkable learning opportunity. Throughout my internship, I have utilized and continue to seek out meteorological resources to increase my understanding of the dynamics behind New England weather. I have shadowed Weather Observers to gather a variety of forecasting methods and familiarized myself with various weather models that I am now able to analyze and readily disseminate information from in the digestible format of the Higher Summits Forecast. Through this, I have developed my own forecasting process that strives to provide those recreating in the White Mountains with the most complete information possible.

My first hike up to the summit of Mount Washington in 2007 via the Jewell Trail. Pictured distantly ahead of me is the Observatory housed within the Sherman Adams Summit Building!

In addition to forecasting, another rewarding element of my internship has been my research on rain-on-snow events at the summit. I was thrilled to be able to contribute to such an interdisciplinary project that includes elements of atmospheric dynamics, snow science, hydrology, and the social implications regarding avalanches and flooding. Events during which liquid precipitation falls on an existing snowpack are unique, especially in the Northeast, and limited literature studies them in such terrain and climate as those in the White Mountains. While this project has given me the opportunity to utilize the multidisciplinary foundation in environmental science and studies I obtained from Colorado College, it has also challenged me in areas where I lack experience and knowledge, such as coding. My work on this project, which included developing a rain-on-snow definition, refining previous work to identify these events involving liquid precipitation specifically, and proposing future study areas and identifying potential social implications of the far-reaching impacts of these events, has primarily been led by use of Python programming language. To develop a working knowledge of this language has been an invaluable experience that I accredit to the Observatory, the internship program, the research I was involved in, and my research mentor, Weather Observer and Research/IT Specialist Charlie Peachey. My research at the Observatory has been an exceedingly rewarding, educational, and transformative experience, and I look forward to seeing where this project goes.

A goal of mine in starting my internship was to build a working proficiency in a variety of summit operations, including weather observations, instrumentation, and education at the summit. My summit team (Weather Observers Alexandra Branton, Alexis George, and Charlie Peachey) has been incredible at providing me any opportunity I sought out. From shadowing hourly and synoptic weather observations, reviewing METAR code and its inclusion in hourly and 6-hourly data submissions, assisting in fixing instrumentation, helping to shovel and de-ice, completing a Facebook Live forecast, giving tours to educational groups and Observatory members alike, etc., I have merely begun to grasp just how much goes into the Observatory’s summit operations and have been lucky to contribute to them.

Taking the RM Young instrument down from the weather tower on October 7, 2023 in high winds and heavy rainfall in anticipation of the first significant icing event of the season. This plastic wind anemometer, unlike our metal Pitot Tube through which we can run heat to mitigate icing, can pick up lower wind speeds more accurately, but consequently must be taken down in particularly windy and freezing conditions.

My experience at the Observatory would not have been as special and transformative as it was without my summit team. From the beginning, Alex, Alexis, Charlie, and Nimbus have been so welcoming, and we’ve made some very fun memories together. We’ve had the opportunity to have snowball fights following the first significant snowfall at the summit, go on the deck in winds gusting 100 mph, explore the summit and Lakes of the Clouds on ice skates, figure out the perfect snow conditions for Snowfeet®, cannonball into misleadingly soft snow drifts, and hike around the Presidentials. I’ve also loved our downtime spent playing Mario Kart and Mario Brothers and watching TV shows and movies.

Pictured left is me ice skating after significant rainfall refroze, creating the perfect glaze ice conditions. While glaze ice has a smoother texture that lent itself well to skating, the typical snow and rime ice found at the summit is much softer and more textured than glaze ice. Pictured right is me trust falling into a deep snow drift after a significant snowfall.

Simply being on the summit has also been one of the awesome parts of my experience. As an avid outdoors enthusiast who grew up picking and choosing days I would recreate in the White Mountains based on forecast conditions, to experience all kinds of weather we study and forecast on the summit has added another layer to my knowledge and appreciation of science in the Whites. To see with my own eyes an approaching storm system from the west and witness summit conditions rapidly escalate into potentially hazardous wind speeds, wind chills, and precipitation has been an educational and humbling experience that has only confirmed my desire to have a career in the outdoors and in the White Mountains.

Friends, family, and others have asked me what it’s like to be at the summit, how I like my work there, my favorite parts of my experience, and many similar questions. At the end of my internship, I have yet to figure out how to answer these questions. It is difficult to accurately describe how appreciative I am of every moment at the summit. To be here for everything from the serene and quiet sunrises and sunsets to taking down the RM young in miserably rainy, dark, and windy conditions has been something I won’t soon forget. To experience the changing of the seasons from record-high daily temperatures to 100+ mph wind gusts and wind chills below -30 degrees is a uniquely amazing experience. To be able to combine my love for atmospheric and environmental science, environmental education, learning, and the outdoors is something I’ve always dreamed of, and I can only hope my internship is the beginning of my career doing so.

One of the first evenings of my internship in August during a walk out to Ball Crag.

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