Summer wind & the tempestuous summit of Mount Washington

Mt. Washington (photo by Christopher Schmidt}

At night, a warm summer breeze is heaven. A howling, bitter winter wind is the enemy. Moving air influences our moods. But now, in August, we get an odd paradoxical mix: It’s the least windy time of year in our region. But it’s also the season of thunderstorms, which can briefly bring destructive gusts.

You can experience the very strongest by visiting famous Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It is the windiest place in the entire northern hemisphere – so windy that people itch to experience it for themselves. To accommodate them, the state built a road to the summit back when Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.

This is actually not the right time to do it, even if it’s the most pleasant. Now, in August, the summit’s average wind speed of 24 miles per hour is only about half that of January, which is when things get crazy. Five of those months have seen gusts over 170 miles per hour, exceeding the strongest-ever hurricanes.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a book that I’m finishing, which needed information about winds. So I arranged interviews with the Mount Washington scientists, who live for eight days at a stretch at the observatory atop the summit. I fished for a specific blown-off-the-mountain windspeed. It’s the kind of juicy statistic that conveys a dramatic image. But with the caution typical of a good meteorologist, Dr. Brian Clark wouldn’t give me one.

“There is no threshold wind velocity that will reliably knock people down. It depends on a person’s height and build,” he explained.

“Well, what wind speed will blow you over?” I asked.

“It depends. It’s much harder to stay standing when it’s very gusty, as opposed to a steady wind that you can lean into.”

“How gusty?”

“It depends.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere. I tried a different ploy: “Listen, your own media relations person, Cara Rudio, already told me that most people are knocked off their feet when gusts hit the high 80s or low 90s. Would you agree with her?”

“She said that?”

“Yes.”

This gave Clark some pause. He then insisted that experienced professionals, who venture out each hour to clean ice off instruments and take readings, often remain on their feet even above 100 miles per hour. After all, he explained, the entire staff undergoes “slide and glide training.”

“Well,” he finally and grudgingly conceded, “I guess no one could remain upright at 150 miles per hour.”

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