Saffir-Simpson here, Fujita there.

2010-06-10 23:40:58.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Staff Meteorologist

No winds or tornadoes here tonight.

Working on the summit of Mount Washington, I have become accustomed to using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to categorize our winds, especially in the winter. On average in the winter, we see category 1 (74-95 mph) strength wind gusts every other day with one out of every four days seeing category 2 or higher winds (96+ mph). All of us working up here have seen and worked in 100 mph winds and all have our own high bar for highest experienced winds. The highest I have been outside in is category 5 (>155 mph) when I was out deicing during a 158 mph gust. Which in itself was impressive but anything over 100 mph is quite impressive and something we are all sort of accustomed to working up here. After all, the summit doesn’t get its label of ‘Home of the World’s Worst Weather’ for nothing. High winds and extreme weather are expected up here, but in the valleys it is a rarity. But on occasion, the weather in the valley brings its own extremes and reminds us of another scale we use in meteorology: the Fujita Scale.

Like the other shift mentioned in their observer comments, some severe weather moved through New England last weekend. So severe that last Saturday, June 5th, the entire state had a tornado watch/warning in effect through the entire day with plenty of severe thunderstorm watches and warnings in effect as well. Now, normally I wouldn’t be out and about when these kinds of things are in effect but Saturday wasn’t a normal day. I was expected to meet former observer Jim Salge, former summit intern Lynn Metcalf, and summit volunteer Ed O’Malley to do some hiking. Since they had driven so far to get a hike in, I didn’t want to say no. Since two of us are degreed in meteorology, we knew the threat of severe weather was lingering, so we planned on a short hike to be followed up at Mr. Pizza in Gorham. The hike itself was fine which was expected since we all thought the bulk of the energy had already passed that morning. Boy were we wrong!

As we finished up at Mr. Pizza and were shooting the breeze at the parlor to kill time, the manager came over and encouraged us not to leave as there was visual confirmation of a funnel cloud heading our way and that if we saw people running towards the freezers to follow suit. Jim and I, being meteorologists, had our doubts but ripped out our smart phones to check out local doppler radar for visual confirmation at the possibility. Sure enough, there was a hook shaped cell heading right for Berlin/Gorham and within minutes, there was visible touchdown of one. We rushed to the windows a bit late only to see the end of the funnel cloud receding into the clouds above. But we ran outside anyways to see all the leaves, sticks and other debris falling from the sky. We debated whether or not it was worth chasing the cell and after much deliberation, we hoped in my car and were off.

Unfortunately we didn’t see anything further (which is actually fortunate given that no one else lost property or their lives) but the one that did touch down became the talk of the Great North Woods. And when Monday rolled around, National Weather Service confirmed what those in the know already knew, a tornado had indeed touched down. It ended up being a F0 on the Fujita Scale which is also known as a gale tornado (speeds of 40-72 mph). It caused some damage to trees and a shed along its 1/10 of a mile path along Brook Road in Gorham and was one of three that touched down during the course of the cells track (one in VT and the other in ME). For VT, ME, and NH, it is rare to get a tornado as only one to two tornadoes a year might be generated. But to get one for each state in the locations they touched down is very rare to say the least.

Even for me it was rare as it is only the second time in my life/career that I have seen a funnel cloud (the other time being in California). The first time I saw one, I was scared but in awe. But that was before working on Mount Washington. You would think that after working up on the summit where hurricane force winds are a way of life, that fear and awe would have faded by now. But I found myself standing outside under a Super Cell last weekend with the same fear and awe I had the first time I experienced one. On the summit, a 70 mph wind is usually consistent in direction with very little in the way obstacles and debris. In the valley, a 70 mph from a tornado is spontaneous with a ton of obstacles to deal with along with debris that might be involved. In other words, a lot more risks to consider. But like the last time I saw a funnel cloud, last weekend I put the fear aside as awe took over and I looked to the sky to reveal itself to me just as I do daily on the summit. And while we may have missed out on the entire event, I’m just thankful we were at the right place at the right time to witness something as rare as a tornado in the North Country.


Ryan Knapp,  Staff Meteorologist

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