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Climate change is coming for New England's highest peak

Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Low clouds approaching Mount Washington.

Mount Washington in New Hampshire is famous for some of the world's worst weather.

The mountain, the highest peak in the Northeast, has long held the record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded by a human — 231 mph on April 12, 1934. At 6,288 feet, the weather is often freezing, even in spring. And the weather can change suddenly, catching many hikers off guard.

But Mount Washington's weather is starting to significantly shift because of climate change. A recent study from the Appalachian Mountain Club found the summit of Mount Washington and the nearby mountain pass Pinkham Notch (elev. 2,032 feet) are warming. The findings could have significant repercussions for local ecosystems and industries that call the White Mountains home.

"It's not just up to random chance, that it may fluctuate year to year," said Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and education at the Mount Washington Observatory. "There's something happening, there's a trend."

The study is the first time researchers have definitively proven the temperature rise due to climate change. It relied on exhaustive weather observations collected at the Mount Washington Observatory and at Pinkham Notch. The observatory was founded in 1932, and the earliest logbook of daily weather data is dated 1935.

Today, Fitzgerald oversees a team of scientists who record the weather hourly, calculate forecasts and conduct their own research projects.

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Robin Lubbock/WBUR
Science and education director Brian Fitzgerald holds open the door at the top of the weather tower at the Mount Washington Observatory.

"It's a lot of fun — every day is different, every shift is different," said Jackie Bellefontaine, a weather observer and education specialist at the observatory. "Someone could tell you [it's] a 100 mile per hour wind, and it's kind of thrilling to go out and actually experience what it feels like."

Despite the excitement, it's a difficult job. Bellefontaine and the other observers live at the summit in weeklong shifts, from Wednesday to Wednesday. Sometimes, that shift gets even longer, if the weather makes visibility at the summit so poor the snowcat they use for transit cannot safely make it up for the shift change.

The observers also go outside every hour to complete their observations — regardless of the conditions.

"It's emotionally high and emotionally low at times," said Jay Broccolo, a meteorologist and observer. "But those are the things that make you feel everything, and make you really enjoy your job."

Their work provides a unique dataset that you can't get anywhere else. The observatory is like a permanent weather balloon, and the only one at this elevation in the region.

"We're really sitting on a mountain of data," said Georgia Murray, the staff scientist at the Appalachian Mountain Club who led the analysis. "The people that started observing this were just interested in mountain weather, and didn't realize this old data would eventually become a climate dataset."

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Robin Lubbock/WBUR
On the roof of the observatory weather observer Jackie Bellefontaine spins a sling psychrometer to measure relative humidity.

The study is the first comprehensive analysis of the records collected at the observatory and at Pinkham Notch in 15 years, including data from 1935 to 2018. It found the annual average temperatures went up 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit at Mount Washington during that time period, and 2.1 degrees at Pinkham Notch.

That means over a period of 84 years, the two locations lost more than two weeks of frost conditions, and saw an increasing amount of thaw days — when the minimum temperature of the day is above 0 degrees Celsius.

Snowfall has also declined dramatically. The research found Pinkham Notch lost several inches of snow during each decade of study compared to the decade before, ending in a loss of 68 inches of snowfall over the study period. The maximum depth (essentially, how deep the accumulation gets) also dropped by 38 inches.

The study did not find a significant difference in snow at the Mount Washington summit, in large part because the high winds there blow the snow off the peak.

"[There are] pretty significant shifts," Murray said. "What we're seeing is due to manmade activities and burning fossil fuels."

The effects of climate change in the mountains are a global problem. A recent study found the highest glacier on Mount Everest is melting faster than anticipated, and in Colorado, the decline of the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has been connected to a loss of water in the Colorado River, a water source for millions of people.

But what's happening on Mount Washington and at Pinkham Notch has distinct consequences for the region.

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Robin Lubbock/WBUR
Meteorologist and weather observer Jay Broccolo explains the current weather patterns at the Mount Washington Observatory.

The loss of snow means local ski areas need to make more of their own, which costs money. Snow machines can run several thousand dollars apiece, in addition to labor and energy costs. But even that requires cold temperatures, which Murray said are happening less frequently as the summit warms.

It's also not just the local ski industry that could be in trouble. Murray said the growing season is starting to get longer.

"Which you might say, 'Oh great, I have a longer growing season for my garden,' " she said, "but if the plants and animals in this environment are used to a certain type of climate, and that is shifting, you're definitely going to see some impacts."

Murray pointed to local moose populations as an example. As cold conditions start later, the winter tick species has more time to latch onto moose as a food source. So many of the ticks infest the animals that it kills a large percentage of calves.

A 2018 study found 70% of moose calves in parts of Maine and New Hampshire died over a three-year period, and the frequency of the tick infestations has risen along with winter temperatures. Winter tick epidemics typically last one to two years, and the three-year period noted in the study is described as unprecedented.

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Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Rime ice, shaped by the wind, on the railings of the Mount Washington Observatory.

Researchers at the observatory and the Appalachian Mountain Club have more studies planned. Murray and Fitzgerald are particularly interested in potential changes to humidity and wind, and what the changes mean for the fragile alpine ecosystems.

They also hope to keep educating the public about the effects of climate change in their own communities.

"There's still an opportunity ... to reduce our carbon emissions projections," Murray said. "What we're trying to do is minimize the extreme changes we might see moving forward. So we still have a job to do."

And with the weather observers still at the summit, recording the weather each hour, they'll have even more data to use.

Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Looking out of the windows of the Mount Washington Observatory.

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