It sounds like an impossible question. After all, how do you quantify “bad”? Windiest, yes; highest rainfall, sure; most toes turned into popsicles – these are all things we can measure objectively. But “worst”? Surely, that’s a matter of opinion.
Well, it may surprise you to learn that not only is there a correct answer – but that it’s also in New Hampshire.
Welcome to Mount Washington, New Hampshire: home to the worst weather on Earth
So, what is it about the weather on Mount Washington that is just so bad? In short: everything.
“[It has] it all,” science communicator Maiya May told PBS Terra. “Hurricane-force winds around one in three days out of the year, the kind of cold seen few places outside of the Arctic, and extreme levels of precipitation.”
It’s no idle boast. The summit of this comparatively small mountain held the record for highest wind speed on Earth for more than 60 years after a gust was measured at 231 miles per hour (372 kilometers per hour) in April 1934 – that’s more than three times the speed that knocks a “high wind” into the “hurricane” category.
Even in summer, when winds are calmest, they’re still averaging around 25 mph (40 km/h) – and “we see 100-mph [161-km/h] winds basically once a week during the winter season,” Mount Washington weather observer Tom Padham told CNET in 2018.
“Usually a 100-mph gust is enough to knock me over, and I've seen up to 140 [225 km/h],” he said. “We're one of the most dangerous small mountains in the world.”
It’s also really wet. Move over London and Seattle: the mountain sees an average of more than 90 inches (2,286 millimeters) of rainfall each year – and more than 280 inches (7,163 millimeters) of snow, ice, and hail on top of that. It’s foggy two-thirds of the time. It’s also prone to direct lightning strikes.
Add to all that the fact that average monthly temperatures range from -6°F (-14.4°C) in January to a positively balmy (*checks notes*) 50°F (10°C) in July, and it starts to become clear why Mount Washington deserves its miserable moniker.
“Any exposed skin, even if it’s just like a millimeter of exposed skin, sort of feels like a bee stinging you or like a low-grade sunburn, so definitely not very pleasant up here,” weather observer Francis Tarasiewicz told CNN back in February, after yet another bad-weather record was broken on the mountaintop. Thanks to a combination of 110 mph [177 km/h] winds and an Arctic cold snap over North America, the Mount Washington observatory measured the coldest ever wind chill in the US that weekend, at -108°F (-78°C), with an actual temperature of -45°F (-43°C).
And unlike most people, up on Mount Washington, bad weather means going out, not staying in. “Given the fact that we were close to breaking records [that] night, we had to go out in those conditions every 15 to 20 minutes or so,” recalled meteorologist and weather observer Alexis George.
Of course, they’re used to it. Even in normal conditions, taking measurements and observations – as well as maintaining and deicing equipment left out to brave the weather – is at least an hourly duty. The brutal weather conditions mean that rime ice “builds up… so quickly the process can almost be seen by the naked eye,” as LIFE photographer Peter Stackpole noted in 1953, and that leaves little option but to trudge out and observe the weather old-school.
“There is no automated system that would survive up here without daily maintenance, if not hourly,” Keith Garrett, the observatory's director of IT and infrastructure, told CNET.
“I get challenged by something different on almost a daily basis, on everything from SQL databases to anything that has buttons and wires.”
Much of the mountain’s weather woes are a product of “dumb luck.”
Why does Mount Washington get such bad weather?
Much of the mountain’s weather woes are a product of “dumb luck,” joked Francis Tarasiewicz, an engineer at the Mount Washington Observatory, to PBS Terra.
But that’s just the sort of understatement you’d expect from someone who lives in a place where “Moderate Wind Speeds” are defined as being “15 mph-140 mph [24 to 225 km/h].” In fact, the mountain’s unique conditions come from a combination of equally unique factors: everything from Mount Washington’s height, to its placement in the country, to its latitude on the globe, all play a part in helping the weather be the worst it can be.
For example: Mount Washington sits roughly equally between the North Pole and the Equator – placing it right in the way of the polar jet stream. This ribbon-like strip of wind is fueled by the clashing of cold air from the north and warm air from the south, and when you get in its way, you’d better hope you brought an umbrella.
“Being at the mid latitudes, we get a lot of… storms frequently,” said Tarasiewicz.
“But really what makes us different is that we’re in a really moist area of the atmosphere,” he added. “Moisture really allows for things like instability, so just the tendency for air to rise or sink. We can have a really unstable environment up here on the summit.”
And sitting so far above its surrounding topography only makes things worse. “We’re the tallest mountain for about 1,000 miles [1609 kilometers],” Tarasiewicz pointed out, “so of course, really, there’s not a whole lot of terrain that’s going to slow down the jet stream as it makes its way through the United States into New England.”
These bone-chilling winds are then quadrupled-down on by a phenomenon known as the Venturi effect – the very same physical law that stops you from spilling gas all over your car when you fill up. Mount Washington doesn’t just sit in the jet stream above its neighbors – it’s located in a sort of gigantic natural funnel, which acts to compress and speed up the airflow on and around the peak.
Why would you go to Mount Washington?
There are two types of people who go to Mount Washington: those who are prepared for it, and those who aren’t.
For those who are prepared, it’s either a good place to hike – an estimated 350,000 people climb to the summit each year, for some reason – or it’s a place to work. And boy, is it a place to work.
“Everyone's here to do the same purpose,” Jay Broccolo, director of weather operations for Mount Washington Observatory, told CBS in April. “They want to be a part of the history. There's so many hardy souls that have spent time of their life on the summit. And being part of that is really meaningful and fulfilling.”
“That sense of belonging to the weather or to what's happening around you makes you feel important. It makes you feel like loved by nature,” he said.
Those who aren’t prepared, however – well, they can meet a grim end: at least 160 people have died or gone missing on the mountain, and that’s only the ones we know about.
“Mount Washington… is sort of in that battle zone [weather-wise],” Tarasiewicz told PBS. “Particularly during the winter, spring, and fall months.”
Still – we bet it’s lovely in the summer. Right?