NORTH CONWAY, N.H. (CBS) – It’s not uncommon to see hurricane-force winds on New England’s highest peak. Mount Washington has an average of more than 110 days of hurricane winds per year.
But on April 12, 1934, weather observers at the summit of Mount Washington recorded wind speeds that no one on earth has seen since.
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Gusts that afternoon hit 231 mph, setting the record for the strongest surface-based wind speed record, which lasted until 1996, when an automated instrumentation station in Australia clocked 253 mph wind during a typhoon.
Mount Washington still holds the record for the strongest surface wind speed ever observed directly by a human.
The legend of the “Big Wind” begins a few days before the record gust. On April 10, 1934, observers noted a perfectly calm wind, a rarity on Mount Washington Summit.
Little did they know that a stronger “double barrel” low with centers over the Great Lakes and the Carolinas was getting stronger, as was the block high pressure northeast of the mountain. The resulting pressure gradient between the systems brought the squeeze game to Mount Washington.
A terrifying morning on April 12 was spent clearing ice in front of the observatory. This dangerous outing was key to making sure all instruments were properly picked up. The afternoon turned into a record breaker. At 1:21 p.m. the gust of 231 miles per hour was recorded.
“Will you believe it?” wrote weather observer Sal Pagliuca. He and the others were amazed at the data they saw. “Was my timing correct? Was the method okay? Was the calibration curve correct? “added Pagliuca.
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The instrument that recorded this remarkable gust was a purpose-built anemometer. The observers knew full well that a standard anemometer wouldn’t do the job as it basically turns into an ice cube with the frozen fog on top of the mountain.
Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and technology at Mount Washington Observatory, said the observers had met with engineers at the M.I.T. In Cambridge they were called “heated number 2”.
“It was pretty compact, pretty sturdy,” said Fitzgerald. “It was a rotor-shaped anemometer that would turn. It was heated, and that was probably the most important thing. “
The record marked a major milestone for Mount Washington and cemented its nickname as “the home of the worst weather in the world”.
“We are building this long and precious climate record on Mount Washington,” said Fitzgerald. “It helps us understand the impact our warming climates have on high altitude and keep learning how to be better engineers every day.”
The strongest gust of wind in recent memory was February 25, 2019, reaching 171 mph.
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“There is no place like this [Mount Washington] on earth and we are very happy to have it in the New England backyard, ”added Fitzgerald.