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  • Staff file photo by Damon Kiesow

    Participants in a weekend educational session at the Mt. Washington Observatory hike near the summit in February of 1999.
  • Staff file photo by Damon Kiesow Mt Washington Weather Observatory at sunrise in February of 1999.
  • Photo courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory

    Former observer Aubrey Hustead holds the Heated Number 2 anemometer that was used to record the 231 mph wind.
  • Photo courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory

    Former observers believed to be Alex McKenzie, left, and Sal Pagliuca check the wires on the summit anemometer.
  • Photo courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory

    Former observer Alex McKenzie attending to an instrument on the summit of Mt. Washington, circa 1932.
  • Photo courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory

    1932 observers, left to right, Alex McKenzie, co-founder Bob Monahan, co-founder Joe Dodge and Sal Pagliuca.
  • Staff file photo by Damon Kiesow

    View from the Mt Washington Weather Observatory in February of 1999.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mount Washington gust record gone with the wind

First, New Hampshire lost the Old Man of the Mountain, and now, we’ve lost another unique attribute: “the world’s fastest wind speed.”

The World Meteorological Organization has confirmed that a ground-level gust of 2531⁄2 mph was measured in Australia on April 10, 1996, during a cyclone – shattering the famous record of 231 mph set atop Mount Washington in 1934.

“It was bound to happen,” Scot Henley, executive director of the Mount Washington Observatory, said in a prepared statement. “While we are disappointed that it appears that Mount Washington may have been bumped from the top, at our core, we are all weather fans and we are very impressed with the magnitude of that typhoon and the work of the committee that studied it.”

Still, the news is bound to be a psychological blow to the nonprofit weather station, even if it won’t affect tourism or fundraising.

The Mount Washington Observatory uses the wind record as part of a semiofficial claim to having “the world’s worst weather,” which has long drawn worldwide attention, most recently with an article in National Geographic magazine.

Mount Washington’s windy supremacy has been challenged before, but this is the first time a competitor has carried an official stamp.

“The key difference now is the WMO, which you could call the United Nations of weather services, gets a panel of experts from around the entire world to evaluate these records and say what’s real,” said Randy Cerveny, a professor at Arizona State University who led the panel that confirmed the wind-speed record (officially, a “record of wind gusts not related to tornados”).

The announcement is part of an ongoing effort by the organization to nail down claims for weather and climate extremes and collect them in an online archive (wmo.asu.edu). These range from the most rainfall in 24 hours – 71.9 inches, or almost 6 feet, on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion – to heaviest hailstone – 21⁄4 pounds, measured in Bangladesh.

This process is designed not only to win bets – “A lot of people are using this archive to settle bar arguments,” Cerveny said – but also to establish methods and equipment to accurately record weather extremes, helping researchers keep an eye on how climate might be changing.

“We want to standardize these measurements … to get the world to take consistent measurements of things like wind, rain, temperature so we’re always comparing apples to apples,” Cerveny said.

To an extent, the process is similar to governing bodies that certify records in sports, since the process includes establishing methods and processes, but also determining what to measure.

The wind-speed record, for example, involves instantaneous gusts at the surface, no more than about 10 meters above the ground.

“The idea was that the record should be in places where human beings have been,” said Tom Peterson, with the National Climatic Data Center and a member of the panel.

At times, the panel also overturns records. Peterson pointed to a claim that a city in India had broken the 24-hour rainfall record.

The panel contacted a researcher in India, who examined the original paper record of that day.

“It clearly showed that when they digitized the record, somebody put the decimal point in the wrong place,” Peterson said.

There are also records for which nobody has established an accepted methodology, such as snowfall.

Measurements of depth of snow can be affected by such things as how often the measuring spot is cleared, because snow compresses over time. The WMO archive includes no snowfall records because so few places around the world have recorded measurements that meet any possible standard.

With extreme wind measurements, a big issue is to show that the equipment – usually a spinning device called an anemometer – wasn’t damaged.

That concern toppled a 1997 measurement from Guam, which claimed to have bested Mount Washington’s wind record until a follow-up examination raised questions about the accuracy of its anemometer.

In fact, similar questions were raised after the 1934 Mount Washington measurement was publicized. It was only after the National Weather Bureau examined the equipment that the claim was accepted.

The 1996 measurement was made by a meteorology station on Barrow Island, a small island off the northwest coast of Australia, during the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.

A report done for the WMO titled “A review of extreme wind gusts at Barrow Island during Tropical Cyclone Olivia, 10 April 1996” said the measurement was made by “a heavy duty three-cup Synchrotac anemometer positioned 10 meters above ground level” and that, “The instrument was in good working order and was regularly inspected with comparisons made against a hand-held anemometer.”

According to the report, the Barrow Island measurement occurred during a five-minute period that saw three other gusts near or above the Mount Washington record.

Faster winds have been measured than any of these, but they were either made by balloons or satellites looking at winds higher in the atmosphere rather than on the surface, or were measured indirectly by Doppler radar or other technologies that are less accurate than anemometers.

It was probably inevitable that Mount Washington’s record would fall, as weather stations are increasingly placed throughout the world.

“We have better instrumentation in more places; we’re bound to pick up more extremes,” state climatologist Mary Stampone said. “It doesn’t diminish the importance of the work at the observatory, and all-around extreme weather.”

Still, she added, “It’s kind of a bummer,”

As for Mount Washington, it remains an unique environment, if for no other reason than it has such extreme weather reachable by road.

“The new record does not diminish the fact that Mount Washington is one of the fiercest places on the planet,” said Ken Rancourt, Mount Washington Observatory’s director of summit operations.

“It remains consistently one of the windiest places on Earth and a location that begs further study of wind, weather and climate.”

And the 1934 measurement remains the fastest surface wind ever measured in the Northern and in Western hemisphere.

That doesn’t quite have the ring of “world’s highest wind speed,” but it’s still something.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.