or nearly sixty-two years, Mount Washington held the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of the Earth: 231 miles per hour, recorded April 12, 1934 by Mount Washington Observatory staff.
The Mount Washington record was toppled in 1996 when an unmanned instrument station in Barrow Island, Australia recorded a new record of 253 miles per hour during Typhoon Olivia. Though the Observatory record fell, it’s a very human story, and it still stands as the highest surface wind speed ever observed by man.
The following are excerpts from then-observer Alex McKenzie's book, The Way It Was, which accounts the experience of documenting and living through a 231 mph wind.
Tuesday, April 10, 1934
The sun rose on April 10, 1934, ushering in a typical April day atop Mount Washington. Normally, the rest of New England welcomes the warmth of spring during a typical April, but winter keeps hold on the high peaks of New Hampshire's Presidential Range well into May in most years.
The staff at the fledgling Mount Washington Observatory, including Salvatore Pagliuca, Alex McKenzie and Wendell Stephenson managed to make it through their second full winter on the mountain. However, they were anxiously awaiting the coming of spring, with its more moderate temperatures and wind. Before the week was out, those men would not only get another severe taste of winter, they would be a part of one of the most intense storms in recorded history.
April 10 was the tight-knit summit crew's first day without Robert Stone, one of their coworkers who was injured in a skiing accident. He was taken down the mountain on a toboggan on April 9 to seek further medical attention on his severely bruised hip. Down a man, they would have to get by on their own for a while, with some help from their guests, Arthur Griffin and George Leslie.
On this April Tuesday, a weak storm system located over the western Great Lakes was slowly approaching New England. In addition, another batch of energy was located off the coast of North Carolina. Even more importantly, a huge ridge of high pressure was in place over eastern Canada and the northern Atlantic. On the summit of Mount Washington, April 10 was uneventful.
"April 10. A perfect day. Cloudless and calm. Hazy. Sun dogs at 5:30 p - a refraction phenomenon of no special importance." –Log Book entry, Sal PagliucaWednesday, April 11, 1934
The large ridge of high pressure continued to build on April 11, causing a major blocking pattern over the ocean. As a result, the energy east of the Carolinas was forced to retrograde to the northwest, combining with the developing system over the Great Lakes.
Pagliuca, Stephenson and McKenzie, along with their guests, awoke to a brilliant sunrise early on April 11. The coal stove in the Auto Road's Stage Office (the Observatory's early home) took the chill off the room.
"Hardly did we realize as we were enjoying a fine view of the Atlantic Ocean that we were to experience during the next 48 hours one of the worst storms ever recorded in the history of any observatory." –Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
The relatively clear skies gave way to clouds, increasing rapidly by afternoon. Fog obscured the summit by evening and rime ice formed up to one foot thick. The Observatory felines all huddled near the coal stove in the late afternoon, the warmest spot in the tiny building. Cats were at home around the Observatory in 1934, as they are today. Oompha and her five kittens; along with Ammonuisance, visiting from the AMC's Lakes of the Clouds hut; Elmer, the timid one; and Manx, a tailless cat like Tikky from the first winter atop Mount Washington, all kept the summit crew company.
With high pressure building more and more to the north and east, and the low pressure becoming stronger to the west, an abnormally tight pressure gradient was forming to the north and east of the storm system. Pressure gradient is the change in pressure over some distance (either horizontally or vertically) with respect to a point in space. A tight pressure gradient results in air rushing quickly from high to low pressure.
"The meteorological notes for today do not say much. They only show a falling pressure, normal temperature, generally in 'rough frost forming' clouds, and rapidly increasing wind. Yes, rapidly increasing to values never dreamed before." –Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
At this point, winds on the summit were building stronger, reaching a max of 136 mph. Although well above hurricane-strength, there was no need to have the staff maintain a wide-awake, round-the-clock watch. Stephenson volunteered to take the overnight shift, since Pagliuca enjoyed taking the morning measurements and McKenzie was responsible for hours of radio tests throughout the day.
Thursday, April 12, 1934
"There was no doubt this morning that a super-hurricane, Mt. Washington style, was in full development." –Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
After taking a short nap, Stephenson awoke to find that it was 4:00 am. Although groggy, he knew that the wind sounded louder and stronger, so he checked the recorder. He needed to convert the recorded reading to the true value according to the instrument's correction curve, and some quick math pointed to an average windspeed of only 105 mph. It was clearly less than he expected. This meant one thing—the instrument was hampered by ice buildup.
Stephenson suited up, grabbed a wooden club and headed for the door. The intense wind created so much pressure that he was knocked to the floor as he opened the door. He struggled as he made his way to the ladder. The wind was at his back, and actually helped him maintain solid footing on the ladder. With dozens of blows, he cleared the accumulated ice from the anemometer. He dropped the club by accident, and it sailed off into the fog towards the Tip Top House.
Back inside, he flipped on the recorder and began timing the clicks from the telegraph sounder. After three tries, he verified that the wind now topped 150 mph.The pieces were coming together for a major weather event. On this day, the ridge over the Atlantic and the storm over the eastern Great Lakes had become even stronger. More importantly, the pressure gradient between these two systems was extremely tight on the northeast portion of the low. This was causing very strong and extremely rare southeast winds.
"I dropped all other activities and concentrated on observations. Everyone in the house was ‘mobilized’ as during a war attack and assigned a job. The instruments were watched continuously so that they may give a continuous and accurate record of the various meteorological elements at work. The anemometer was particularly watched. A full tank of gasoline made us feel good." –Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
As the day wore on, winds grew stronger and stronger. Frequent values of 220 mph were recorded between 12:00 and 1:00 pm, with occasional gusts of 229 mph. Then, at 1:21 pm on April 12, 1934, the extreme value of 231 mph out of the southeast was recorded. This would prove to be the highest natural surface wind velocity ever officially recorded by means of an anemometer, anywhere in the world.
"'Will they believe it?' was our first thought. I felt then the full responsibility of that startling measurement. Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right? Was the stopwatch accurate?" –Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca
Extremely strong winds were recorded later in the afternoon and evening of the 12th and then the storm slowly moved north and entered a weakening phase.The storm lasted only one day. Some snow was recorded along with severe icing. The anemometer used to record the record wind was a heated anemometer designed special for Mount Washington. It was constructed in Cambridge MA, and tested in the wind tunnel at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
After the wind measurement, the anemometer was run through a number of tests by the National Weather Bureau and the historic measurement of 231 mph was confirmed to be a valid reading.
What the World Record Means
Mount Washington’s "World Record Wind" is legendary, but what is the meaning of that decades-old record today?
First and foremost, the record is a testament to the real extremes that can rule on Mount Washington. Significant cold, abundant snowfall, dense fog, heavy icing, and exceptional winds are a prominent feature of Mount Washington's environment. Yes, there are colder places and snowier places, but, Mount Washington, a small peak by global standards, has weather to rival some of the most rugged places on Earth. There are days each winter when the combination of life-threatening conditions rival those of extremes recorded in the polar regions and on peaks three or four times Mount Washington's height. The former world record wind is one benchmark testifying to the mountain's severe weather.
The record is also a testament to the dedication and diligence of the Observatory staff. A part of the challenge of science is to observe and reliably record that which we study. For the Observatory, that means monitoring and accurately measuring the weather. Some measurements are relatively easy to obtain, such as using a standard thermometer to record temperature. Other parameters are more challenging. To accurately record the winds of Mount Washington, which are typically high and gusty, and to do so during a severe icing event, is no simple matter. It is incredibly difficult and dangerous to climb atop a building in winds greater than 180 miles per hour to free an anemometer of ice. The fact that the 1934 Observatory crew could accurately measure a wind of this magnitude, during a period of very heavy glaze icing, is a tribute to their planning and engineering acumen, as well as their commitment to establishing and maintaining this remote scientific outpost.
The record is also an inspiration to Observatory staff today. In 1934, not even two years after the Observatory was established, the Observatory staff was given a remarkable test and passed with flying colors. They anticipated a great challenge and rose to the occasion. Their good work serves as an example to be followed today. As proud as we are of the achievements of the Observatory staff of the 1930's, we cannot rest on their laurels; we must earn our own.