“Will They Believe It?”: The Story of Big Wind Day
2017-04-12 09:30:46.000 – Mike Carmon, Senior Weather Observer & Education Specialist
“Will they believe it?” – Weather Observer Sal Pagliuca
Winds are at a meager 20-35 mph on Mount Washington’s summit today, with gusts to perhaps 60 mph expected later this afternoon.
However, 83 years ago, atop this very mountain, a storm for the ages was taking shape. An intense area of low pressure was traveling up the coast of New England, while a formidable high pressure center was building in from Canada. This is an all-too common list of ingredients for high winds on the summit of Mount Washington, but an additional element proved to be a deciding factor between just another Mount Washington high wind day, and what would become a world-record wind on the surface of the Earth. That element was the direction of the wind—the track of the impending low pressure system was such that it sent winds rushing towards Mount Washington’s summit from a southeast direction. While the notorious “funneling effect” of wind from our most common wind direction (west) acts to accelerate winds as they pass over our summit, this effect is amplified further from the southeast due to the terrain off that direction. The corridor of Pinkham Notch acts as an effective and much more drastic “ramp” up to the southeastern flank of the Presidential Range, with Mount Washington as a proverbial target directly in its center.
Fast forward to today’s Observatory, and I currently find myself composing this blog post in a steel-reinforced concrete building, rated to withstand winds upwards of 300 mph. Unless a storm-of-the-millennium sets its sights on the White Mountains, we’re safe and secure within the confines of this building in all manner of Mount Washington weather. These accommodations have come a long way since 1934, however, as the early Observatory was housed in a decidedly smaller wooden building located on the southeastern periphery of the summit proper. The building was effectively chained to the ground in an effort to secure it to the very mountaintop upon which it sat.
However, the force of 200+ mph winds is quite brute—in fact, it’s essentially unimaginable for most individuals. It certainly can be enough to decimate large structures, as was evidenced from the destructive force of Typhoon Haiyan back in 2013, which devastated the Phillippines with sustained wind speeds (1-minute) as high as 196 mph and gusts estimated to 235 mph at landfall. In the locations directly hit by the full force of these winds, the devastation was total and complete.
So, one can only imagine the fear running through the heads of the dedicated mountaintop weather observers in 1934 as these high winds were buckling the very structure protecting them from the brute force of the winds they were present to observe and study. Nevertheless, the hearty observers continued to meticulously record their weather observations through it all—a testament to their firm belief in the importance of what they were doing amidst the momentous situation that they found themselves in on that fateful April day.
“Will they believe it?” exclaimed in the Observatory log book by on-duty Observer Sal Pagliuca, who took the actual reading that calculated to 231 mph, which was simultaneously observed and confirmed via radio by observers at Blue Hill Observatory near, Boston, MA. As implausible as it was, they would certainly believe it, and after confirmation that the Heated No. 2 Anemometer was within calibration and functioning properly both before and after the big wind, a new world record for surface-based non-tornadic wind speed was emblazoned in the record books with the moniker “Mount Washington, NH“. This record stood proudly for Mount Washington, the White Mountains, and all of New Hampshire for over six decades, adding to the lore and allure of this truly special part of New England. However, on April 10, 1996, nearly 62 years later, Tropical Cyclone Olivia delivered a 253 mph punch to Barrow Island, Australia, which assumed the world record wind speed title (officially in 2010) after years of confirmation. The station was an automated one, however, and no actual human beings were present to experience this wind speed reading. Hence, although not an official title in the record books, Mount Washington can still claim the highest wind ever experienced by a human being on the face of the Earth. An impressive title nonetheless!
83 years later, here I sit, having the privilege of composing a blog post from the very location in which this extraordinary event in White Mountains and New Hampshire history took place. It’s exceptionally special to ponder the long history of the hearty observers that came before us, their dedication to the same cause in which we also work so tirelessly to support, and the more shoddy living conditions that accompanied the same pressures under which we also face. We have the luxury of infinitely more snug living quarters, with reliable heat, a firm foundation, and the comfort that our building will always be standing the next day. The honor of working for such a storied organization, in a breathtaking and awe-inspiring location such as the summit of Mount Washington, NH, is truly a special one.
Here’s to the day we reclaim the world record wind speed! We’re more than ready for it.
Mike Carmon, Senior Weather Observer & Education Specialist