In the White Mountains, a network of remote weather stations gives inklings of the future 

By: - September 27, 2023 5:00 am
Mount Washington weather forecasting

Funding from the 2023 Northern Borders Regional Commission Catalyst Grant Awards will be used to upgrade 11 of the Mount Washington Regional Mesonet’s stations and add 18 new stations. (Courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory)

A network of remote meteorological monitoring stations across the White Mountains gives the public real-time access to mountain weather intelligence, while its collected data simultaneously serves as a forewarning of New Hampshire’s climate future.

And it’ll soon be expanding, utilizing federal dollars from the 2023 Northern Border Regional Commission Catalyst Grant Awards. The funds will be used to upgrade 11 stations of the Mount Washington Observatory Regional Mesonet, as well as add 18 stations for a new total of 36. 

The stations withstand intense cold, high precipitation volume, icing, and hurricane-force winds to collect essential data used by forecasters at the Mount Washington Observatory, National Weather Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Also using the information are alpine and climate scientists, recreationalists, groups operating on Mount Washington, and search and rescue organizations. 

The data is also transmitted in real time to via solar-powered radio links for public viewing. At any given moment, people can see the temperature on the Mount Washington Auto Road at various elevations ranging from 1,600 to 6,288 feet and at other locations such as Cannon Mountain, Tuckerman Ravine, and Bretton Woods. 

“The tech we are talking about on these stations is cutting edge,” said Drew Bush, executive director at the Mount Washington Observatory, a nonprofit research and educational institution with a famous weather station atop the Northeast’s highest peak.

The observatory maintains a 90-year history, one of the longest continuous weather records in North America.

Mount Washington weather forecasting
Pictured on a map are remote meteorological monitoring stations of the Mount Washington Observatory Regional Mesonet network. (Screenshot)

A mesonet, explained Bush, is a network of “autonomous remote weather stations.” In this case, they’re tripod frames assembled with various components to capture temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, air quality, and pollution. The mesonet in the White Mountains, he said, is the same kind used in the Himalayas, home of Mount Everest. 

The recent NRBC funding, nearly $500,000 secured by the state’s congressional delegation, will add new stations in the eastern and northern areas of the White Mountains, increasing the resolution of data collected as major storm tracks arrive at the mountain range. 

“Where we operate in the White Mountains, weather can be pretty variable between different elevations and topographies,” Bush said. “It’s not necessarily particularly easy to forecast. Having real-time data from each of these stations makes that job much more efficient and accurate. It really just aids hugely in that type of work we do.”

Much of that work has to do with better understanding weather, the dynamics of ice and snow, and how those speak to broader climate trends playing out regionally. A Northeast consortium of mountain observatories, including the Mount Washington Observatory, recently received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assist in better data sharing across the region.

Mount Washington weather forecasting
The Mount Washington Observatory Regional Mesonet is a network of 18 remote meteorological monitoring stations (as of 2022). Each station measures temperature and relative humidity, with additional variables at many locations. (Courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory)

Planning for the future

People love to talk about the weather. As something everyone observes, it’s often seen as go-to apolitical conversation. For Bush, the work being done at the Mount Washington Observatory is about far more than genial chitchat.  

Weather doesn’t exist by itself, he says.

“People like to think about the weather as this amazing phenomena that we all like to talk about and enjoy if it’s good and commiserate if it’s bad,” Bush said, “but the perspective I come from is the weather is inextricably linked to human civilization, almost any economic activity that you can talk about. And it can have dramatic impacts and be disruptive to human behavior or normal operations.”

Bush noted the variety of economic costs associated with a changing climate and resulting extreme weather. Forecasting and observation work is critical information for businesses in the White Mountains, including tourism, outdoor recreation, agriculture, conservation, and hospitality. 

In a study published last year in the journal Northeastern Naturalist, for example, researchers from the University of New Hampshire found that at the current pace of global warming, by mid-century (2040-2069), ski areas in North America will face up to a 50 percent decline in days where conditions would be favorable to make snow.

A study in 2018 also found a significant correlation between low snowfall years and a decline in the number of visitors to New England ski areas.

Ski areas fight to keep snow on slopes amid warming winters

Data provided by the Mount Washington Observatory helps entities make strategic decisions and plan their annual operations in the face of a shifting world.

“We are kind of on the border of finding out what (climate) changes might happen on a local, national, or global scale,” Bush said. “This kind of (NBRC) funding, this kind of grant is a window into really understanding that in detail in our state.”

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Hadley Barndollar
Hadley Barndollar

Hadley Barndollar covers climate, energy, environment, and the opioid crisis for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Previously, she was the New England regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network and was named Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Email: [email protected]