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Wilfred von Dauster

Science Discovery at Mt. Washington By Dean Paschall


At the Grand Opening of the Mount Washington Observatory's Weather Discovery Center, New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg was handed a hammer and chisel and then directed to a block of ice molded to resemble Mount Washington. Frozen into the center of the “mini mountain” was a ribbon, either end affixed to the entrance of Weather Discovery Center, located in North Conway, New Hampshire. As Senator Gregg strode toward this frozen edifice, he was overheard saying, "I’m not sure where to get started here." The senator’s words echoed the comments uttered by the Executive Director of the Mount Washington Observatory as he and his colleagues learned that their proposal for a NOAA grant had been approved. But here they were, just two years later, watching airborne shards of ice react to well-placed hammer blows (Figure 1). The ribbon dropped, marking the official opening of the NOAA-funded Mount Washington Observatory's Weather Discovery Center.

Figure 1

Figure 1. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg (front) and Dr. David Evans (far left) of NOAA at the Grand Opening of Mount Washington's Weather Discovery Center, located in North Conway, NH.

The ceremony was attended by Paul Fitzgerald, President of the Board of Directors of the Mount Washington Observatory; Dr. David Evans, Assistant Administrator of NOAA; Senator Judd Gregg; and Dr. A.E. MacDonald, Director of FSL (Figure 2). This opening represented the culmination of years of planning and hard work leading to the creation of this first-of-its-kind center. The purpose of the center is to provide students from area schools and visitors to the Mount Washington Valley an entertaining, interactive opportunity to learn more about weather observation and atmospheric sciences.

Figure 2

Figure 2. FSL Director A.E. MacDonald (right) enjoying the Grand Opening festivities.

The World's Worst Weather

One may ask why NOAA would choose an out-of-the-way place like North Conway, New Hampshire, to build a center created solely for the purpose of weather education and discovery. The answer is simple: North Conway is considered the gateway to Mount Washington, long touted as home to the "worst weather in the world," a distinction that also translates into "the most interesting weather in the world." Indeed, Mount Washington experiences the most severe combinations of wind, cold, ice and storminess anywhere on the planet where observers are on hand to take measurements. The summit lies in the path of the principal storm tracks (Figure 3) and air mass routes affecting the northeastern United States. In April 1934, observers measured a wind gust of 231 mph, which remains a world record for a surface station.

The Mount Washington Observatory, one of the longest standing private weather observing stations in the United States, submitted a proposal to the NOAA grants office in August 1997 to create a weather education outreach program. The objective of the program was to couple atmospheric research activities with educational outreach, targeting visitors to the Mount Washington area and schools throughout New England.

The Weather Discovery Center

Mount Washington Observatory representatives have been working in cooperation with FSL to supply educational curricula and materials to supplement the creation of a comprehensive weather educational program. With the "chiseling of the ribbon" the Weather Discovery Center opened its doors to the 8.5 million annual visitors to the Mount Washington Valley. The center is the nucleus of the Mount Washington Observatory educational outreach effort, in addition to educational tours for visiting students from the New England region and millions of other visitors from everywhere.

Visitors are first treated to a 10-minute introductory video designed to pique the viewer's interest about how wind affects every aspect of our lives. They leave the theater and then enter an interactive area where they can manipulate and operate many different exhibits created specifically for the Weather Discovery Center. For example, visitors can move and relocate the various shaped objects located in the flow tank to explore how fluid (air) moves over and around surfaces, and an air cannon lets them "see" how wind travels through space.

Next they walk through the replication of the old stage coach stop, complete with rime ice on shingles and huge chains that were used to keep the building from blowing away in high winds. Speaking of high winds, visitors then step into the "wind chamber" to hear and feel what a 231-mph wind is like. This exhibit will shake you to your bones. The stage stop and the wind chamber both offer a glimpse of what it was like on that chilly morning of 12 April 1934 when observers ventured out into subzero temperatures to crack rime ice from the anemometer that measured the world record 231-mph gust.

A highlight of the center is the NOAA Weather Wall (Figure 4). This exhibit offers the visitor an opportunity to learn more about the latest tools in weather observing technology. Demonstrations of AWIPS, FSL's Local Data Acquisition and Dissemination (LDAD) system, and other tools used by NOAA meteorologists provide the visitor insight of how forecasters apply this technology to predict weather events. This display also has an interactive version of the NOAA video "Dynamic Science," which further informs the visitor about the NOAA mission and research activities related to oceans, atmosphere, and solar science.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Photo of Mount Washington, which holds the world record of 231 mph winds recorded at a surface station on 12 April 1934.

Figure 4

Figure 4. FSL Director A.E. MacDonald (left) discussing the NOAA Weather Wall with Senator Gregg.

Part of of the Weather Wall includes a live, interactive video feed to the observers on the summit of Mount Washington. Visitors can talk with observers, ask questions, and use a two-way video display to learn more about the job of the weather observer on the summit of Mount Washington.

Science Research

In addition to the creation of the Discovery Center, directors of the Mount Washington Observatory have been working very closely with the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State College, and FSL to develop and transfer information about newly emerging technologies for improving atmospheric observations. The research projects include wind profile investigations utilizing the latest in ground-based LIDAR technology, air vapor research using GPS, investigation of cosmic ray activity in the upper atmosphere, and development of robust instrumentation for severe weather environments.

Educational Outreach

In answering the call to educate the public about weather, the Mount Washington Observatory created a Summit Museum in 1973. An educational agenda was actively pursued for presenting annual symposia and short courses in the sciences and humanities, and audio/visual and interactive outreach programs for schools and groups (Figure 5). The Mount Washington Observatory also sponsors the nationally syndicated radio program, "The Weather Notebook," heard on National Public Radio stations across the nation.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Photos of students experimenting with science at the Weather Discovery Center.

About three years ago, MWO directors proposed to vastly expand their education outreach efforts. The NOAA grant significantly bolstered an already active educational outreach program and complemented the atmospheric research activities. Enhancements to the outreach program include:

  • Development of an interactive weather education Website
  • Initiation of a traveling weather education program designed to reach schools throughout New England
  • Renovation of the summit museum
  • Creation of a weather discovery room located at the summit of Mount Washington
  • Creation of the interactive Weather Discovery Center in North Conway, NH.

    The traveling education program, "The Wonder of Weather," has reached over 5,500 students and teachers in schools thoughout New England. In July 1999, a complete renovation of the Summit Museum was finished, including the addition of the Weather Discovery room, currently open to the public. The Website, under development, will be launched on a limited test next spring.

    Future Enhancements

    The Weather Discovery Center has reached the final steps of completion, but its activities will continue to evolve. Bright minds will continue to develop creative exhibits to explore weather investigations onsite or to be lent to other museums and science centers across the nation.

    With Phase I of the center almost complete, plans are on the drawing board to move on to Phase II, in which the directors of the Mount Washington Observatory hope to build a new facility on their property located nearby in Bartlett, NH, current home of the Mount Washington Weather Instrument Research Center. The plan is to collocate the Weather Discovery Center at this site of cutting-edge research with weather sensing instruments. This move will bring school children and visitors in direct contact with the latest in atmospheric research.

    Table 1

    (Dean Paschall has led the Mount Washington Project, under the direction of Dr. Renate Brummer in the International Division of FSL. He can be reached by e-mail at paschall@fsl.noaa.gov.)

    FSL Staff