Bad Weather and Special Relativity: The Fascinating History of the Mount Washington Observatory

Mar 16, 2017

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is known as the highest peak in the northeastern United States, rising to 6,288 feet. But the mountain also ranks as another first: the home of the first mountaintop weather station in the world.

The Mount Washington Observatory has its roots in an expedition undertaken by a group of scientists in 1870, who climbed the mountain to take measurements they hoped would improve our ability to forecast the weather.

The project caught the attention of the United States Signal Service—which later became the National Weather Service—who took over, establishing an official, first-of-its-kind weather station on the summit that remained active until 1892.

Forty years later, public recognition of the importance of a permanent weather station lead to the founding of the Mount Washington Observatory in 1932 as a private, nonprofit organization devoted to research, data collection, and education.

The value of the undertaking was reinforced just two years later, when scientists at the observatory recorded a new record for directly measured surface wind speed in the northern and western hemisphere of Earth, at 231 mph on April 12, 1934.

That record has been beaten worldwide only twice since.  

Other extreme benchmarks recorded at the observatory include a temperature of 47 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in January 1934, and a record snowfall of 566.4 inches during the winter of 1968-1969. 

All told, scientists at the observatory have measured over 84 years of hourly meteorological data. 

For physicists, Mount Washington’s research station has a different claim to fame—as the site of a famous experiment that helped to demonstrate the validity of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. In the 1960s, David H. Frisch and James H. Smith observed the duration of the lives of muon particles, which travel close to the speed of light, both on top of Mount Washington and, simultaneously, near sea level in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scientists found discrepancies in the life span of the muons that coincided with relativity’s predicted effect on time when objects are traveling at near the speed of light.

Click here for a summary of the experiment.

The observatory is now housed in a modern facility which includes a museum that invites visitors to experience the mountain’s most extreme weather conditions. However, the original historic structure can also be seen at the summit, chained into place to keep it from succumbing to those record-breaking winds.

Photo by Mouser Williams

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