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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/28/2010

Farewell to Mt. Washington's wind record

By Andrew Freedman

* Temperatures to tumble: Full Forecast | Latest snow assessment *

The sun sets on Mount Washington's world record wind. Photo by CWG's Ann Posegate

Friday was a sad day for those of us who knew and loved Mount Washington's World Record Wind, hereto referred to by our nickname for her, "Gale." That's when we learned that Gale was supplanted by a new record wind, which was recorded in Australia in 1996 but only recently uncovered.

Gale's death may cause confusion for some.

Apparently, 14 years ago, Gale was killed defending herself against a fierce Category 4 cyclone named Olivia on Barrow Island, Australia. Only a few scientists knew about this incident, however, and news traveled slowly to her caretakers at the World Meteorological Organization.

Keep reading for the rest of this tribute to Mt. Washington (aka "Gale")...

The announcement of her death from storm-related injuries came suddenly during the weekend, dealing a swift blow to the State of New Hampshire, which had only just begun healing from the loss of the "Old Man of the Mountain" rock formation from gravitational injuries in 2003. (Now New Hampshire has only its Presidential Primary to keep it in the limelight).

Those who say that "records were made to be broken" never knew Gale. She had such a desire to break the mold that she came to epitomize New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" state motto. Gale's determination was of invincible (and invisible) proportions, which accentuated her gutsy (and gusty) personality.

Friends and relatives often described her as a "breath of fresh air" and "whoa! What the heck was that?" She was a swift sprinter and avid traveler who came to be known and celebrated for her ascent of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, in world-record time: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.

Gale was not born out of a hurricane or tornado (she would have scoffed at any such assistance), but rather from an intense but relatively ordinary springtime New England storm. Her mother was from the Western Great Lakes, and her father was a volatile front from the East Coast. Gale arrived from the southeast and departed in the general direction of Canada.

Although Gale rattled the summit for mere moments, she has gone on to support generations of weather researchers by inspiring people such as ourselves to study the science of weather and climate. For that we are eternally grateful.

Countless New Englanders, as well as weather geeks the world over, had committed Gale's statistics to memory at a young age: 231 mph, recorded at 6,288 feet. It's hard to believe that there are now new numbers to memorize.

Let us take a moment of silence to honor the legacy of Mount Washington's World Record Wind. She will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of millions of weather fans, many of whom will continue to celebrate "Big Wind Day" on April 12 for years to come.

Gale is survived on the mountain by an average wind speed of 35 miles per hour, and frequent gusts of more than 100 mph.

By Ann Posegate and Andrew Freedman, friends of Gale, and former employees of the Mount Washington Observatory.

By Andrew Freedman  | January 28, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, News & Notes, Posegate, Satire, Science  
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I detect conspiracy here. Was EAU involved in this new, upstart Australian measurement? Did someone apply a "trick" to produce the final results? I want to see the emails.

Posted by: ennepe68 | January 28, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Actually "Gale" was probably "killed" several times previously, by never-recorded wind gusts from Category 5 hurricanes Camille [1969], Andrew [1992] and Katrina [2005], Typhoon Tip [1979] and numerous F5/EF5 tornadoes.

Remarks on the old Fujita scale made by David M. Ludlum indicate that F5 tornadoes could generate winds to 318 mph and that "inconceivable" trans-F5 [old Fujita scale] tornadoes could generate winds from 319 mph to near-sonic speeds! There are several possible candidates for this "inconceivable" category, notably the great Tri-State Tornado of Mar. 18, 1925 and the long-path Mattoon/Charleston, IL tornado of May 26, 1917, both tornadoes occurring prior to good wind-speed data availability. Apparently a suction-vortex speed of 284 mph was observed by photogrammetric methods in one tornado, but this speed may not have lasted 3 seconds or more.

The interesting note here is that Olivia was a mere Category 4 tropical cyclone, as compared to Category 5 Katrina, Andrew, Tip [minimum observed air pressure], Camille and the Sept. 2, 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys. Each of these Category 5 tropical cyclones could easily have generated three-second gusts of 275 mph or greater.

BTW I'd be interested in knowing whether the Weather Channel team last June got any reliable wind-speed data on that tornado they observed over a full life-cycle in Goshen County, Wyoming.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 28, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

We need to get the record back for the good of the USA. Can we start planting wind-speed monitors on some other mountain tops and such?

Posted by: ah___ | January 28, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I saw another article that said something like, "First the Old Man of the Mountain falls down and now this."

That's pretty cool you two worked up there.
Several years ago my wife and I rode The Cog up there. Amazing views. We've been back a few times to that area to go skiing across the road at Bretton Woods... a quick flight/drive via SW Air from BWI to Manchester...

Posted by: spgass1 | January 28, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Bombo: While you are correct that tornadoes likely contain stronger winds than the official record wind, I don't think wind measurements from a tornado would break Mt. Washington's record. Ann, please correct me if I am wrong on this, but the record is for non-tornadic winds that were directly measured by an anemometer. There are some questions as to whether the anemometer in Australia sampled a tornado within the eye wall of Olivia, and that is being looked into.

Also, the data from Goshen Cty, Wyoming is still being analyzed, but the tornado was rated an EF-2, which means its wind speeds likely did not approach the world record. Most of the measurements that day were made by Doppler radars, ten of which were focused on that twister at the same time. I saw that storm firsthand, and it was mighty impressive. I still have a recording of the sound of golf ball size hail hitting the windshield of the vehicle I was in.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | January 28, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I worked on Mount Washington one winter as an intern and the second as an emplyoee of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. What an amazing experience. But I don't recall the record being for "non-tornadic" events. If I'm correct, it was for the strongest wind ever recorded on the surface of the earth, period. Of course there have been stronger winds, but said winds have destroyed the anemometer and it was impossible to verify. I remember a typhoon that hit Guam in the early 2000's or late 1990's that they thought had beat the record, but came to find the anemometer was out of calibration. Most winds are measuered by 3-cup anemometers, while Mt Washington uses a pitot tube, similar to those used on aircraft to measure air speed. In otherwords, it can withstand just about anything. Although the record wind from back in the 1930s was measured with a 3-cup I think. Sad day for the folks up there, but they still have the claim to the "worlds worst weather".

Posted by: johnnyd2 | January 28, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

My late wife & I went on the Cog wheel train 2 the top on July 12 of 99, it was 41 degrees with fog & sleet. It is 1 of the neatest places I've ever been 2. On Dec 12 of 99 it was 42 degrees, 1 degree warmer than in July.

Posted by: VaTechBob | January 28, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Andrew & johnnyd - Yes, the Mount Washington record was for highest ground/surface wind speed ever recorded on Earth. What also made it unique was the fact that it was recorded at a manned weather station.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | January 28, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Fyi, Mt wash. is the 2nd highest pt on the east coast, Mt. Mitchell in NC is the highest.

Posted by: VaTechBob | January 28, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

IMO it isn't fair to exclude measured TORNADIC gusts of 3 seconds or longer when considering world wind speed records.

If we exclude "tornadic" winds from consideration, that would put the "new" world record from Olivia into dispute according to Andrew Freeman's post.

In addition, there's still the question of three-second gusts from Category 5 storms as I mentioned. Not all of those would be "tornadic" in nature. I suppose that wind measurements recorded by dropsonde aren't eligible for the "world-record" category; some of these measurements were recorded above the sea surface at altitudes of several hundreds or thousands of meters.

As for the Mt. Washington record, I suspect it may have been the result of a low-diving jet stream or jet streak. Jet stream winds often exceed 200 mph during the winter, as indicated by what happened over the Pacific last week. A jet stream wind of 231 mph is not unknown and jet stream winds are sometimes transported to the surface in severe thunderstorm downdrafts.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 28, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Hey Andrew, I appreciate the clarification in regards to this alleged record breaking measurement. I was wondering about whether or not the latest Aussie measurement pertained to the same standards which have applied to the Mt. Washington record, or not. I am truly interested in finding the actual results here.

Btw, I also remember riding the Cog Railway up to the summit of Mt. Washington as a kid, and I was fortunately able to see "Old Man OF The Mountain", and take photographs of it, before it's collapse. My father is a Dartmouth graduate (& his English side of the family comes from Plymouth), and so we have always spent quite a bit of time in NE over the years. It is an absolutely stunning environment, not to mention the infamous Tuckerman's Ravine, lol, a skiers worst nightmare (You wouldn't catch me trying it, not for any amount of money offered).

"VaTechBob", Mt. Washington used to be declared the highest mountain on the East Coast (It was actually known as the highest mountain in all of North America, before the Westward expansion of explorers began), but it was "dethroned" by Mt. Mitchell (I cannot recollect the year which it happened). Besides, I personally believe that Mt. Washington's elevation is far more striking, and blatant in nature. For one, it actually has a tree-line, which Mt. Mitchell doesn't have. Not to mention the attitude which it has, which is of a far larger mountain (Akin to Mt. McKinley/Denali).

"Bombo47jea", yea, the Jet Stream pummels that particular mountain. That's why they always say, if you don't like the weather on Mt. Washington, just wait five minutes. As a matter of fact, my father was climbing Mt. Moosilauke back in the 1950's, in the Spring/Summer time (There are only really two seasons up there lol), and when they started out it was 70 Degrees Fahrenheit, and completely Sunny, with Clear skies. However, they were nearing the upper elevations of the mountain when suddenly they were hit with clouds, sub-freezing temperatures, and a complete blizzard whiteout! Fortunately they found a survivors cabin which happened to be fully stocked (I think it was actually maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club), and managed to make it out alive. It just so happened to be one of their many NE adventures over the years :-)

Posted by: TheAnalyst | January 28, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Hi Ann - Back in the 1930's, all weather stations were "manned". But what makes Mount Washington unique today, it is still "manned"! While all other METAR stations in the U.S. use ASOS (Automated Surface Observing System). The latter is robotic and uses an optical sensor to estimate visibility, and as you know, the observers on the summit use a diagram of the horizon and pick out known points, like other summits or ridgelines to estimate visibility. On a good day you can see Mt Marcy in New York - I think over 100 miles away! I was up there my last year running a snow gauge demonstration project for NCAR because they wanted a windy site to calcualte a collection coeficent based on different wind speeds. After $200,000 spent from an FAA grant, we found out it was too windy! Well, not too windy, but the buildings around the area where the snow gauge was created intense eddies (as measured by our 3-D sonic anemometers) so we moved the site back to Marshall, Colorado (just south of Boulder).

Posted by: johnnyd2 | January 29, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

I should add the ASOS, besides measuring visibility, it also automatically collects all other weather information and sends it to NWS computers for dissemination.

Posted by: johnnyd2 | January 29, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Nice article and comments. I'm a long-time fan of MW and while we ought to be open to all new, valid records, I'm wondering if NOAA/NWS can undertake the same sort of instrument evaluation of Barrow's equipment as was given MWO's anemometer in the 1930s. An automated station certainly contains some electronic equipment and physical probes, all of which should be checked for proper operation and calibration. Maybe someone out there can check into that. One other wind record that MW still holds - maybe - is that it clipped the record of 231mph not once, but twice.

Posted by: mooboo | February 1, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

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