So, Is Mt. Washington Really the Worst?

Validating Mount Washington Observatory's extreme claim
photo by ryan knapp
At the Mount Washington Observatory, it’s not unusual to experience hurricane-force winds. We’d say that qualifies as pretty bad weather. But is it the worst?

Early this year, we received the following challenge to a claim that has long been made by the folks at the Mount Washington Observatory — that their summit is home to the “worst weather in the world.”

The December 2015 issue, page 54, states that the “world’s worst weather is right here in New Hampshire, atop Mt. Washington.”

That’s not true. I’ve only lived in New Hampshire for a little more than 48 years, but I’ve also “wintered over” in the Antarctic while on Operation Deepfreeze III. While there for more than a year, ’57 and ’58, I experienced months of darkness and very low temperatures, days of whiteouts and many days of very high winds. I’ve also been to the top of Mt. Washington and never seen anything like the Antarctic.

The lowest temperatures ever recorded on Earth were in various places on the Antarctic continent. They are -128.6 F, and that’s thermometer temperature not wind chill, and also a temperature of -135.8 F recorded by satellite.

I’m not saying that Mt. Washington is “tropical,” but it is a long ways from the “world’s worst weather.”

John Henry, Weare

We promised to look into the matter and learned that Kenneth Jones, a world traveler and longtime board member for the Mount Washington Observatory, had made it his personal quest to prove the assertion. We sought Jones out, and, sure enough, he was willing to make the case, which we publish here in “First Person.” And should any persist in their doubting, new Mount Washington Observatory President Sharon Schilling is proposing that this resulting article be framed and mounted at the summit, though it might be hard to read when it’s covered in rime ice.

The summit of New Hampshire’s highest peak is home to the iconic Mount Washington Observatory. The observatory’s motto is “The Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” But is it really?

First, let’s agree on a definition of “worst weather.” I believe that most people think of it as cold, wet and windy. Presence of snow is a matter of debate. Some, myself included, like snow. Many do not, so let’s leave it at cold, wet and windy.

It is at the observatory that the highest wind ever observed by man, 231 miles per hour, was recorded on April 12, 1934.

In addition to high wind, the observatory sees lots of precipitation: 96.87 inches (246 cm) average rainfall and 255.98 inches (650.2 cm) average snowfall per year. It’s located at the confluence of several storm tracks that cross North America.

This is all fine, but how can a relatively benign location on the globe lay claim to the worst weather? After all, the summit of Mt. Washington is only 6,288 feet above sea level. Located in New England, its latitude is on a par with Spain. Surely, there are other sites with worse weather.

In a quest for such locations, I’ve visited many places, spoken with people who have lived in locations where one would suspect worse weather and have collected data on others. Let’s look at the usual suspects:

The poles (and near the poles):

Just shy of the North Pole, at 80 degrees north latitude on Ellesmere Island, lies Canada’s Eureka Weather Station. It gets an average wind speed of 11 km/hour, as compared to the average of 57 km/hr atop Mount Washington. I went from Eureka to the Pole, stopping to converse with a man who operates a supply station at 85 degrees north.

He spoke with me at length about the weather during the many winters he has camped on the ice, selling supplies to polar expeditions. 

In terms of precipitation, the North Pole is a desert. Eureka experiences average annual snowfall of 53 cm vs. 650 cm for the Rockpile.

It is colder at the pole than the minimum recorded at Eureka (-55 C), and the minimum at Mt. Washington is a comparatively balmy -44C.

To the south, the picture is a bit grimmer:

On such a vast continent as Antarctica, surely there must be worse weather than ours somewhere.

Russia’s Vostok Station is located on a high plateau at the geomagnetic pole. The Russians claim that it’s the least-accessible place on the continent and say that Vostok is the “coldest and most inhospitable place in the world.”

In terms of annual precipitation (measured in liquid equivalent, since it doesn’t rain, it only snows), Vostok gets only 0.45 centimeters whereas Mt. Washington gets 246 centimeters. Once again, a polar desert!

In general, Antarctica is colder than Mt. Washington. The world-record low was recorded at Vostok Station on July 21, 1983, which was a whopping -128.6F (-89.2C). To compare, the record cold at the observatory is -47.0F (-43.9C)

Colder, but much drier.

Ah! But what about the McMurdo Station at about 78 degrees south?     

Another desert, with average water equivalent precipitation of just 20.3 centimeters (just under 8 inches), it falls way short in the “wet” category.

The wind at McMurdo blows in and lifts snow from the surface. These “blizzards” are rarely driven by hurricane force (more than 70 mph) winds. Atop Mt. Washington, however, hurricane-force winds are commonplace, and they drive falling precipitation, which is often snow. Over the years that I’ve been visiting Mt. Washington, I have observed snow falling in every month of the year.

The Other Suspects

But what about the other seemingingly inhospitable places such as Siberia, Alaska and other northern locations that aren’t very welcoming?

I’ve looked at data for Siberian locations from Vladivostok to Provideniya to Murmansk. None of these ticks off each box — the cold, wind and wet conditions — that Mt. Washington claims.

Alaska, from Ketchikan to Barrow, offers no comparable combined bad climate.

Pending further evidence, therefore, I have concluded that the summit of Mount Washington, where cold, wet and windy conditions reign, is indeed the location of “The World’s Worst Weather.”

Categories: Features