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Science / Medicine : MOUNTAIN OF THE BIG CHILL : Weather on New Hampshire's Mt. Washington is so consistently bad that the site is a cold climate testing laboratory for science and technology.

September 23, 1991|JOSEPH BROWN | Brown is a free-lance science writer living in Rockport, Me

MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. — When it blows, snows, rains or turns foggy on this rocky, 6,288-foot high New England summit, science pays rapt attention.

Whipped by reputedly the hardest winds on Earth, this "stormiest mountain in the world" is besieged by a unique combination of weather forces. As a result, the peak, highest in the northeastern United States, has been a premier cold weather testing laboratory for science and technology for more than a century.

Now it may figure prominently in determining a number of significant matters, including whether the Earth is experiencing a warming or "greenhouse" trend, the best way to keep power lines free of ice and how best to keep track of ozone levels in the atmosphere.

With a splendid view into five states, a corner of Canada and the Atlantic Ocean (on rare cloudless days), Mt. Washington is the reigning monarch of the Presidential Range of New Hampshire's White Mountains, favorite of skiers, hikers and naturalists. It is located at a point where three storm tracks converge, bringing chilly, blustery, Arctic-like weather--sometimes with very little warning--even in midsummer.

When residents of the nearby village of Gorham swelter in muggy midsummer heat, they need only drive eight miles up the twisting Mt. Washington Toll Road or ride a steam cog railway to encounter a radically different climate on the summit.

Twenty feet of snow falls on Mt. Washington in an average year; in the 1968-69 winter, nearly 48 feet was measured. The year-round temperature average is below freezing, and only once did the temperature exceed 70 degrees. In 1934, the mercury plummeted to 47 degrees below zero.

But it is the wind that makes Mt. Washington a favorite topic for discussion among climatologists and helps to shape the conditions that the Pentagon found ideal during World War II to test everything from tires to sleeping bags to fog-piercing searchlights for its Arctic-bound troops.

Year-round, the wind blows at an average gale-strength 35 m.p.h. It exceeds hurricane strength a third of the time. And for a few minutes on April 12, 1934, anemometers at the Mt. Washington Observatory recorded steady winds of 231 m.p.h.--the strongest ever measured anywhere.

"I remember one night when it blew 187 m.p.h.," said Kenneth Rancourt, a meteorologist on the summit for seven years. "Those are the times you don't dare go outside."

Along the toll road from New Hampshire 16 to the summit, a visitor climbs about a mile in elevation. But as evidenced by the change in vegetation and weather, that is the equivalent of moving north in latitude--at the same theoretical elevation--about 1,000 miles. Coupled with the extremes of climate, this geographic quirk has made Mt. Washington an ideal place to study the effect of arctic and sub-arctic conditions on humans and machines as well as flora and fauna without leaving the comfort and convenience of New England.

One phenomenon on the summit whose study has figured importantly into military and commercial aviation is rime ice. A scientific puzzle for decades, rime ice forms when super-cooled droplets of moisture in the atmosphere (those below freezing temperature but inexplicably still liquid) freeze once they touch a solid object, such as a building or an airplane. "Rime ice is beautiful to look at on the mountaintop," Rancourt said, "but it's downright life-threatening on an aircraft."

Ice adds dangerous weight to an aircraft. It can destroy aerodynamics when it forms on a wing and it makes maneuverability impossible when it freezes on control surfaces. When the jet age arrived with its much speedier aircraft, a reliable way to keep ice from forming was clearly needed. Mt. Washington, with its overly generous supply, became the world's premier testing site for de-icing technology.

Heat seemed the most logical solution. "But melting the ice required more energy than aircraft could generate," Rancourt said, "so a boot de-icer--a plastic-covered device fitted on the leading edge of the wing, perfected on Mt. Washington--became the aviation industry de-icing standard."

Rainmaking was a natural spinoff from the de-icing studies. Irving Langmuir and Vincent Schaefer of the General Electric Co. came here to perfect their technique of seeding clouds that contained super-cooled water droplets, causing rain.

Riding the crest of scientific enthusiasm whipped up by the Mideast oil crisis, Mt. Washington in the 1970s became a busy test site for wind-driven alternative energy devices. Another New England mountain, Grandpa's Knob in Vermont, is where wind turbine research actually started; Mt. Washington is where many successful turbines in commercial use today were perfected.

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