Nights on the Summit
2021-02-01 22:13:58.000 – David DeCou, Night Observer
Good evening from the summit of Mount Washington!
This is David DeCou, writing to you live as we approach the end of another exciting shift on the Rockpile. After a really mild start to January, this last week we experienced the coldest temperatures of the season so far, with a nor’easter on the way. I had almost forgotten what a wind chill of 50 degrees below zero feels like! However, with tonight’s storm I am glad to have the cold air around. During a snow storm earlier this month, my coworkers and I endured an unpleasant bout of freezing rain and glaze icing. I very much prefer to have the cold, dry spell of this week. In spite of the chilly start to this shift, the last two nights have been quite nice: light winds, clear skies, and moonlit peaks for many miles around. It has been a nice reminder of the perks of working night shifts up on the summit of Mount Washington – the starry night sky and the rising moon can be spectacular sights. On many nights, these can be difficult to appreciate with 60+ mph northwest winds whipping around the tower into your face, so the rarer times of calm weather are all the more appreciated. Below is the moon rising over undercast skies, taken at around midnight several weeks ago from the observation deck.
It has been 11 months since I began working as the Night Observer up here on the summit, so I’ve had a good amount of time to reflect on the pros and cons of nighttime weather observing. During one of my very first night shifts, I remember looking up at the night sky and seeing what looked like a narrow, thin layer of clouds high up in the atmosphere. I thought it to be a layer of wispy cirrus but noticed it wasn’t appearing in IR satellite imagery and that it was tracking steadily across the sky over the course of the night. I had the stunning realization that the skies were so clear that I was seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye for the very first time. Being able to experience the night sky from the summit of Mount Washington is absolutely a ‘pro’ in my book, at least on the occasions the summit isn’t shrouded in fog. In addition to that, during the course of my 12-hour night shifts, there is never a moment of boredom, and always something to do. Most of my time spent between hourly observations is spent quality-checking the day’s data or working ahead on the forecast or weekly/monthly checks. Sometimes I’m able to get some exercise in, or I whittle away a few minutes here or there doing the dishes when I can. There is a nice flow to the night shift that makes the 12 hours go by quickly. Time especially flies by during storms or icing events, sometimes too quickly.
There are drawbacks to nights of course, as is the case for any sort of night shift position. I have found that I need to make an extra effort in order to get two things: sleep and sunlight. For sunlight, this is especially difficult in the middle of winter. In December and early January, if I want to view the sunrise I have to make an effort to stay up after shift, or I have to wake up early to be up in time for sunset. It is possible for me to go for days without seeing the sun, and it is a struggle, especially when sleep can be limited. It takes some time to get used to the cycle of sleeping during the day and getting up when it’s dark, especially with the 8-day-on, 6-day-off nature of the job. Over time I’ve adjusted more to nights than days, as I spend more time up here than not. Rather than attempting to adjust back and forth week after week, I’ve found it is easier to try to keep one mostly-consistent sleep schedule, and so far it seems to work. However, keeping my night schedule during my off-weeks is also very limiting in ways, and does not allow me to get much sun. I use a sun lamp for this purpose, but personally, I cannot wait for the summer again. Night shift during the winter definitely makes me appreciate sunlight quite a lot more. Sunsets and sunrises feel far more precious, but the summer is a different story. During part of the summer, my shift will begin with the sunset and end with the sunrise, and I have no shortage of gorgeous views.
Tonight, we are expecting a substantial amount of snow with the approaching nor’easter, and it is always exciting to see how our forecasts verify with a system like this. The winds have been picking up throughout the night so far, and snow showers should begin shortly. We may even experience some 100+ mph gusts into Tuesday morning, so I may be in for an interesting night. As much as I enjoy being up here, I am keeping my fingers crossed that my coworkers and I are not snowed in for shift change on Wednesday. The valley will likely be in for even more snow than up here, so it may be a different world by the time we go back down.
David DeCou, Night Observer