Much has changed since Henry David Thoreau wrote about Mount Washington’s dramatic and unpredictable weather in 1839 but the weather certainly hasn’t. On a clear day, visitors enjoy spectacular panoramic views from Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean or they may experience a taste of the World’s Worst Weather—it can snow on the summit even in summer. Weather is the story on this mountain.
The first weather station on the New Hampshire summit was operated by the U.S. Signal Service from 1870–1892. The modern observatory was founded in 1932 and on April 12, 1934, the highest surface wind speed ever directly observed by man was recorded at the summit: 231 mph! The highest temperature ever recorded at the summit is 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest not including wind chill was -47 degrees.
Historic, bitter, and dangerous cold is again gripping Maine, New Hampshire, and other New England states.
Temperatures at Mount Washington Observatory approached an all-time low Friday into Saturday morning (February 3-4, 2023) and reportedly set a new wind chill record for the United States hitting levels feeling as low as -109 degrees.
As of 9:58 p.m. Friday, windchills were -108 degrees and gusts were howling at 110 miles per hour, according to a National Weather Service Eastern Region (NWS) screenshot of the Mount Washington Observatory real-time summit conditions. The temperature at this time was -45.8 degrees.
Windchills set a new national record low and reached -109 degrees at one point Saturday, NBC Connecticut reported. “The wind chill at the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington dropped to minus-108 degrees Friday marking what meteorologists and climate scientists say probably is the lowest temperature recorded in the history of the United States as the Northeast is being battered with dangerously cold air.”
Videos recorded by the nonprofit Mount Washington Observatory show how the extreme cold and strong winds of more than 100 mph from the Arctic air blast walloped the summit Friday afternoon and made the mountain with the tallest peak in the Northeast seem like another planet. In fact, the eerie scene atop Mount Washington was slightly colder than the average on Mars this week, according to NASA.
The wind chill at Mount Washington, a 6,228-foot peak known for erratic weather surpassed the record of minus-102.7 degrees noted in 2004. The observatory had forecast sustained winds of more than 100 mph on Friday night with gusts around 128 mph.
The Mount Washington Observatory tweeted Friday afternoon that the daily record temperature set in 1963 had been broken and that temperatures were “expected to plunge even lower overnight.” And they did just that with the wind chill dropping to minus-108, according to the National Weather Service. (The Mount Washington Observatory calculated the wind chill at minus-109 degrees.)
Mount Washington Observatory meteorologist Francis Tarasiewicz told WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshite that the record wind chill had capped off “an amazing day, an awe-inspiring day and actually a bit of a frightening moment.” Tarasiewicz noted that the strong wind which he described as “a topsy-turvy whiplash” broke the hinge of a door at the observatory because of the force the blasting air exerted on it.
“So it took about three people to prop themselves up against it and someone from the state park helped to secure the door again.”
“There is half of me that loves what is going on right now and the other half of me is pretty terrified, especially when the door fails,” Tarasiewcz told NECN.
The meteorologist who pleaded with hikers to stay off the trails on Saturday warned that such extreme wind chills would result in frostbite on exposed skin in less than a minute.
“On some of my observations, there have been tiny little gaps in my mittens and the spot that was uncovered to the wind felt like a bee stinging my arm continuously,” Tarasiewicz said.
The National Weather Service said the temperature at Mount Washington dropped as low as minus-46 degrees Friday night.
“Right now Mount Washington is living up to the reputation of having the worse weather in the world,” the National Weather Service wrote on Twitter.
The record-breaking wind chill at Mount Washington is part of dangerous cold air invading the Northeast and putting nearly 50 million Americans in 15 states under wind chill alerts into Saturday. Parts of Maine are experiencing their most extreme wind chills in at least a generation and New England cities including Boston, Providence, and Bridgeport, Connectucut set record daily temperature lows, according to the Weather Service.
Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist based in Alaska, tweeted that the last time the wind chill could have hit at least minus-108 in Mount Washington would have been 138 years ago. Using old climate forms showing the temperature and 24-hour average wind speed, Brettschneider estimated that Mount Washington would have seen a minus-108 wind chill on January 22, 1885.
Meteorologists and weather experts across the country were blown away by the record wind chill.
“Mount Washington, New Hampshire, has experienced the most extreme weather on planet Earth today,” wrote Colin McCarthy, a storm watcher based in California.
“Mind-blowing observations from Mount Washington,” said Lee Goldberg, a meteorologist with WABC-TV in New York.
“Woah!” exclaimed Brandon Orr, a meteorologist with WPLG-TV in Miami.
Others on social media grappled with comprehending the extreme weather they were witnessing at Mount Washington.
“(The) Mount Washington summit looks like another planet,” one observer tweeted.
As weather experts pointed out, Mount Washington found itself in the stratosphere Friday night as the result of a lobe of the polar vortex that barreled south. The atmosphere becomes more compressed as it cools meaning that the boundary dividing its two lowest layers, the troposphere and the stratosphere, known as the tropopause, will sink in altitude.
That is what happened Friday night said Terry Eliasen, a meteorologist with WBZ-TV in Boston, who noted on Twitter that the atmospheric heights were so low Friday that anyone above 4,000 feet such as at the summit of Mount Washington would be in a different atmospheric layer.
“This layer is typically 4-12 miles up but tonight it will be less than a mile!” he tweeted Friday alongside a graphic projecting how low the stratosphere would dip.
By Saturday morning, there was good news and bad news for Mount Washington, according to the observatory.
The good news? The wind chill was no longer minus-108 degrees at the summit.
The bad news? The wind chill had improved only to minus-77 degrees.
Mount Washington wasn’t the only place with bitter cold as many towns across New England experienced below-zero temperatures, some of the coldest it’s been in years. Boston, Worcester, Providence, and Hartford reached their lowest temperatures ever recorded for the day of February 4.
Here’s a collection of temperature observations from around the region:
- Ashburnham, Massachusetts: -20
- Sterling, Massachusetts -18
- Royalston, Massachusetts: -18 (elevation: 1,200 feet)
- Ashby, Massachusetts: -18 (lowest wind chill: -40)
- Woods Hole, Massachusetts: -5 (sea level)
- Newport, Rhode Island: -4
- Ipswich, Massachusetts: -11 (lowest wind chill: -36)
- West Townsend, Massachusetts: -15
- Fitchburg, Massachusetts: -15
- Lowell, Massachusetts (UMASS): -14 (coldest since 1/22/84, coldest on record: -15 on 1/19/71)
Wisdom comes with winters.