Reflections on a Late-February Summit Trip

2021-03-17 06:34:30.000 – Charlie Buterbaugh, Development Coordinator


Approaching tree line, the landscape is stunning. High above the White Mountain National Forest floor, protected in the snowcat as we gain elevation along the auto road in late February, the sight of clouds shrouding nearby peaks opens a vast field of vision. Closer at hand, dwarf balsam and black spruce trees known as Krummholz, covered with ice, offer signs of an extreme, inhospitable place.

 Krummholz can be seen lining the Auto Road while approaching tree line.
As we reach the alpine zone, make our final ascent to the summit, and step onto the deep snowpack, I am filled with exhilaration. Even on this relatively calm day, with 35mph winds and the thermometer reading 20°F, the imagination can conjure notions of an otherworldly place, seemingly disconnected from life at lower elevations.

However, while the summit is distant, our lives are deeply connected to New England’s highest peak. As the new Development Coordinator at MWOBS, I get to hear compelling stories from our members and donors, from many locations, whose lives have been influenced by Mount Washington.

From a natural resource standpoint, snowfields in the alpine zone serve as a natural water tower for the Mount Washington region during summer melt, filling streams leading to Saco Lake and the Saco River aquifer, providing vital drinking water for New Hampshire and Maine.

We depend on the health of Mount Washington. It also depends on us. With multiple climate zones creating tremendous biodiversity along mountain slopes, leading through a vast range of habitats to the summit’s location at a layer of the atmosphere that’s both highly unique and critical to understand, Mount Washington is vulnerable to the warming climate created by our lives at lower elevations. Understanding the impacts of climate change on high-mountain areas can give us vital clues about our future.

Having started at MWOBS in December, a trip to the summit wasn’t something I expected to happen so soon. The organization’s focus on safety required pausing visits to the weather station, where our observers continue their 24/7 work in weather forecasting, climate science, and education. But an opportunity arose as a small team was heading to the summit, and I didn’t hesitate at the chance to spend a few hours learning first-hand about the vital work done by our weather observers.

 We were greeted at the summit by beautiful undercast.

During the past year, the observers have kept us connected to the summit, performing their hourly weather observations to continue the institution’s nearly 90-year data record. They publish forecasts for Mount Washington, the higher summits, and the region twice every day. Among other critical work, they also share beautiful photography, giving us a window to both extreme weather and sublime horizons from the mountaintop.

In the Jack B. Middleton Weather Room, Weather Observer & Education Specialist Nicole Tallman and Summit Intern Jackie Bellefontaine helped me understand their process of forecasting. Producing a single forecast involves a substantial degree of analysis, data verification, and peer review. From assessing weather models, to looking for red flags in wind patterns, performing their own observations and uploading data every hour, the observers collaborate to publish forecasts that hikers, skiers, pilots and many others rely on for safety.

 Rime ice on the observation deck railing.

They’re also contributing original research to help us understand the effects of climate change in high-mountain areas. We’re looking forward to sharing updates on their research projects in April. Stay tuned!

While on the summit, we had plentiful sunshine and incredible views. However, as the day came to a close, dense cloud cover reduced visibility to a minimum at about 2:00 p.m. I took one last walk on the observation deck. The wind speed had dropped below 10 mph, a rare occurrence for mid-winter. Weather Observer & Engineer Sam Robinson had climbed the tower to install the R.M. Young propeller anemometer, used only when conditions are right to measure ultra-low wind speeds. This is just one small example of tremendous dedication to accuracy in the Observatory’s data record, which provides us with understanding of our changing climate, and in turn connects the unique weather station on Mount Washington to our communities.

 Instrumentation Specialist Pete Gagne works on the Pitot 20 Anemometer.

I’m looking forward to talking with members of the Observatory community as much as possible in my new role. Look out for updates on Seek the Peak and other exciting opportunities to support our mission!


Charlie Buterbaugh, Development Coordinator

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