I’ve spent my first night on the summit this week watching for thunderstorms. The weather map shows a line of showers and electrical storms spanning North America from the southern tip of Ohio down into Georgia, slowly edging into the East. It’s an understatement to say that lightning is hot. At 43,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it heats the cooler air around it so violently that powerful (not to mention noisy) shock waves reverberate across the sky—thunder! Lightning bolts have already struck the southwestern corner of New York state and are soon expected to sizzle across New England.
I’m busy with other chores at the moment—there are measurements to take, data to record and report, memos to write—but I keep one wary eye on the black night sky outside the window. I’m waiting for that first flash of lightning—the signal that will prompt me to jump to my feet and run like crazy through the rooms of the observatory, shutting down all the computers. There’s one sure way to incur the wrath of our accounting department, and that’s to let an expensive research computer get zapped.
When I first started working at the Mount Washington Observatory a little over five years ago, we had only a handful of computers and didn’t yet have a Web page. Now there are no less than 21 computers constantly humming. The last time they were all shut down, the sudden silence amazed me. You don’t realize how much background noise all the computers, radios, clocks, and other electrical appliances in your life are making until suddenly they are switched off.
Tonight, the relative quiet in the weather office only magnifies the wailing and shrieking of the wind, just outside the concrete walls. Every hour I put on a coat and go outside to take a weather observation, which is then coded and reported to the National Weather Service. There’s something ominous about stepping alone into a wet, black fog, waiting for your eyes to adjust to the dark, watching the beam of your flashlight get extinguished by swirling mist only a few feet away. The wind gusts above 70 mph, tearing at the hood of my jacket and tussling my hair. It roars like Niagara Falls. There’s a drenching rain, too, so I might as well be standing under a waterfall. It’s unnerving, stepping away from the safety of the tower door and walking across the observation deck. Exposed, unable to see, I can’t tell whether or not a massive 7-mile-high monster of a cumulonimbus cloud is looming above me, ready to pounce. Quickly, I collect the data I need and hurry back inside.
I’d forgotten how creepy the night shift can be. Usually I work the day shift. But this weather station is in business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and so this week I’m filling in during the overnight hours. That means I must stay awake—and also alert and coherent enough to accurately read instruments and deal with any emergencies—until 4:30 a.m. Not normally a coffee drinker, I might have to raid the kitchen for some caffeine.
A little after midnight, it’s time to collect the precipitation can from the middle of the summit cone. Everyone else is asleep. Even our cat, Nin, is napping, curled up on an old sweater in a corner of my desk. He blinks occasionally and looks up to see what I’m doing but clearly has no inclination to accompany me outside. Not while this wind is howling. So I hoist the precipitation can on my shoulder and walk alone down the empty corridor to the front door. Eight hours earlier this section of the building was a noisy hubbub of visitors, park rangers, and hikers. Now it’s empty and silent. A light suddenly flickers off to my right, and I stop, startled. But no, it’s not the much-anticipated lightning. A TV monitor above the stairs of the summit museum has been left on and is broadcasting static.
As soon as I reach the door and step outside, the fog cuts off the glow of my flashlight at 10 feet. The narrow beam, lopped off, resembles a Star Wars light-saber. That’s all I can see. Immediately beyond the edges of that feeble light, there’s nothing but shadows. To navigate to the precipitation can, I rely more on my ears than my eyes. The grumbling and sighing of the wind sounds like ocean waves crashing against the shore. To my left, I hear a rhythmic clang clang clang, a noise like the galloping of horse hooves on pavement. I identify it as the cords of a flagpole clanking in the gusts. At least now I know where I am. A moan almost like a human voice joins the cacophony, but it’s only a 70-mph gust being funneled between the roof and tower. I stagger out to the precipitation can, buffeted by wind, and then return to the weather room. Nin yawns at me.
Still no sign of lightning. But sometimes it sneaks up on us. The scariest experience I ever had came four years ago. I had climbed to the very top of the tower just after dinner as needles of rain stung my face. My task was to take down a three-cup anemometer, used to measure low-speed winds. We remove it if the wind picks up above 30 mph, to avoid damaging the bearings. The forecast had made no mention of thunderstorms, but suddenly the sky above me lit up like the Fourth of July. And there I was, standing in the rain at the absolute highest point in New England on an exposed parapet, holding a wet, metal anemometer. Not exactly the safest place to be. I must have set a record for leaping down the ladder and sprinting back inside the tower.
My co-worker Anna encountered the same, unexpected, pulse-pounding terror last winter. She was de-icing instruments at the top of the tower, when she saw a “spark” out of the corner of her eye. Her teeth began to hurt, too, and that should have been the first clue that what she had seen was no ordinary spark. But it was February, and who expects lightning in February? Her main worry was that perhaps she had accidentally shorted out some electrical wires. So, unaware of any danger, she kept chipping away at the ice. Then the sky exploded once more, and a resonating boom of thunder made it clear that it would be a pretty darn good idea to get back inside.
No staff member has ever been seriously injured at the observatory, but we sure seem to have our share of close calls.
Photograph on the Slate Table of Contents © 1986 Annie Griffiths Belt/Corbis.