Working Above the Clouds: Meet Nicole Tallman – Extreme Weather Observer and Education Specialist at Mount Washington Observatory
In the depths of winter at the Mount Washington Observatory, extreme winds can explode furiously over the summit – howling so loudly even the protection of concrete walls at the observatory can’t muffle its loud power. Couple this with unrelenting snow, sub-zero temperatures, and extreme icing events and it’s clear why this one-of-a-kind New Hampshire landmark, and the tallest peak in the Northeast, has earned its title of Home of the World’s Worst Weather.
For most of us living in the lower elevations of New Hampshire, the thought of this wild weather seems like a nightmare. We find it hard to imagine feeling a force of wind capable of blowing vehicles off the road, snapping power lines, and blowing roofs off of homes, but at Mount Washington Observatory, hurricane winds occur 110 days a year on average. And, for extreme weather observer and Education Specialist, Nicole Tallman, it’s a dream come true.
“The first memory I have of being captivated by extreme weather was when I was around six or seven [years old],” says Tallman. “My sister and I were building a blanket fort in the living room and there was a very loud thunderstorm outside. I remember she was afraid of all the noise and commotion and I was glued to the window watching it occur.”
Tallman says she’s never been afraid of extreme weather – only fascinated by it. This fascination led to a degree in meteorology and geology from Rutgers University in New Jersey and an out-of-this world internship opportunity at the Mt. Washington Observatory after graduation. “I love to be engulfed in extreme conditions,” she says. “Interning at the Mount Washington Observatory allowed me to test the waters with many different areas of meteorology while also allowing me to be fully immersed in the world of extreme weather. I was able to test the waters in observing the weather, forecasting, broadcasting, research, and other aspects of being a meteorologist. It was a great way for me to figure out what I preferred as a career. While most of my work as an intern was done indoors, I was able to walk right outside of the office space and into 100 plus mile per hour winds or extreme icing conditions. It was a thrill to have that right outside my window.”
After her internship, Tallman left the observatory to start her career in science education as a middle school teacher at a private school for gifted children in Connecticut. After two years of teaching in that capacity, Tallman was offered a position at the Mount Washington Observatory as their education specialist. “I was so elated to be able to go back to a place I loved so much from my internship. I quickly packed up and relocated myself to New Hampshire and began my role [last June],” Tallman says.
In the throes of the COVD-19 Crisis, nearly all of the in-person educational programs provided by Mount Washington Observatory were halted. As a critical source of income lost for the nonprofit, Tallman was tasked with helping to establish a consistent virtual classroom providing education about weather and climate. “We developed and have successfully been running a program titled, ‘Home of the World’s Worst Weather Live’ weekly on Mondays, where we teach a 30-minute program on a topic in weather, climate, or climate change,” Tallman says. “We also provide a linked worksheet to the program on our website mountwashington.org/classroom. I was able to use my previous experience to help with developing the outline for this program as well as developing the individual classes each week. It has been a great way to reach out to not only local middle school classrooms, but even classrooms across the country!” The hope is that hosting a virtual classroom will assist with the demand of virtual learning. “Each week, we dive into a topic from air masses or fronts, to how extreme winds are measured. As part of the program, we try to relate these topics back to the science and work that is done on Mount Washington,” Tallman explains.
It has been said that when you teach what you love and what you know, you open the minds and souls to worlds unknown. Tallman’s love for extreme weather is the foundation of her passion, while her real-life experience is the framing that builds her platform as an educator. “As a weather observer, my main task is to observe the weather every hour,” she says. “I, along with my five fellow observers, will start by gearing up to what is needed. Sometimes this is head-to-toe coverage to prevent frostbite and other times it means throwing on a light jacket. We head up one flight of stairs and outside onto our observation deck. Some of the atmospheric variables we are looking at are cloud heights and types, visibility both horizontally and sometimes vertically, precipitation type, and any obscurations like fog. We also use various weather instruments to measure other atmospheric variables like temperature, wind speed, wind directions and air pressure. One of the instruments we use almost every observation is called a sling psychrometer and it measures wet bulb and dry bulb temperatures. From these two readings we are able to calculate temperature, dew point, and relative humidity.”
When asked what the most extreme weather she has personally experienced on the summit is, she is quick to recall it happening during her internship in 2017. “It was October and my shift was down bound for our off week [because] the summit staff works in shifts of eight days on and six days off. My co-worker, Adam, and I were getting so excited about the possibility of a high-wind event only to realize that it was on our off week,” explains Tallman. “We departed the summit and were in the valley becoming upset that we would miss out. We would check the weather models every hour waiting for the newest update and saw the storm only getting better. After some convincing of our fellow co-workers, we were brought back to the summit during our off week.”
Tallman vividly describes her most extreme weather event with captive exultation. “Overnight the winds began to increase. We all wrote down our best guess for wind speeds. My guess was 131 miles per hour,” she explains. “Rain was pouring and winds were howling so loud that you could hear [it] even from inside. A few of us climbed up ladders inside the observation tower and very carefully went outdoors to listen to the winds and watch the rain fly by. Rain does not feel good when it hits your face at over 100 miles per hour! We were protected by the building so as to not get injured, but still heard the winds whipping.” It wasn’t until the crew climbed back down into the weather room they were told the winds had gusted up to 128 miles per hour. “Shortly after coming inside, winds peaked again, this time to 131 miles per hour and 133 miles per hour. We were ecstatic. This was by far the highest wind speeds I have ever witnessed. The wind then began to decrease and my adrenaline began to wear off as I realized it was past three in the morning.”
It’s hard not to think that the requirements of the profession could also lead to lots of solitude, and perhaps loneliness, if one’s not consciously aware of the possibility. In fact, Tallman says that living on the summit of Mount Washington can feel like you are living on another planet. “Mount Washington is statistically in the clouds (fog) every two out of three days. This means there are no views and sometimes you can only see several feet in front of you. When you have days and nights like this, it is very important to be able to entertain yourself! We all have our own hobbies that we partake in while off duty, I personally work out, watch tv or a movie, knit, read, or FaceTime with loved ones,” she explains. “My favorite conditions are what we call undercast. This is when our summit is higher than a layer of the clouds covering the sky beneath us. When we have undercast skies it truly feels like you are on another planet. All the surrounding peaks and towns that we typically see are covered with a blanket of clouds and you feel as if you are on an island in the middle of the clouds. Sunrises and sunsets can be pretty spectacular as well.”
So, what really makes Mount Washington home of the world’s worst weather? Tallman explains there are a few critical reasons why Mount Washington sees these extreme conditions. The first being its location and surrounding topography. “Mount Washington is located among many other peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire,” she says. “Some of the surrounding peaks to our west create a ‘V’ shape with Mount Washington at the peak of [it]. This funneling effect allows winds from the west to flow up over Mount Washington enhancing it slightly. As we see our prevailing wind direction from the west, this effect does impact us frequently. Secondly, being situated in New England means having high density or low-pressure tracks moving overhead. Low pressure systems are typically associated with inclement weather and, therefore, with many low-pressure systems moving over New England, we are at a higher likelihood of severe weather. Lastly, Mount Washington is at an elevation of 6,288 feet making it the tallest mountain in the Northeast. When winds flow over our summit, they are squeezed between the summit and what is called the tropopause. The tropopause is the top of the layer of atmosphere we live in and acts as a ‘lid’ to where weather can exist. When air is squeezed between us and this ‘lid,’ it is forced to go faster, similar to putting your thumb over a garden hose and forcing water to flow faster through the smaller space. The effect is called the Venturi Effect and it allows winds to be accelerated when passing over our summit.”
When asked about some of the most fascinating aspects of Mount Washington, Tallman praises being able to see so far on a clear day as one of her top five most fascinating things about the summit. “You can watch a thunderstorm develop, grow, precipitate, and die all from the window at my desk. I love being able to look out and see what weather is occurring miles and miles away from me.” She concludes that having the opportunity to live in such an extreme location and frequently experience and live on the summit is riveting.
This unique place, so powerful and strong, is also fragile to climate change. “Mount Washington has maintained accurate weather records for over 80 years giving us the ability to evaluate trends in this data,” Tallman explains. “We have seen slow and steady warming to our temperature over the span of our data, which is in line with many other stations across New England. Our unique feature of the summit’s warming trend is that the summit is warming at a slower rate than the valleys. Given Mount Washington’s prominence as the tallest peak in the Northeast, the summit is in a part of the atmosphere known as the “free troposphere” about 50 percent of the year that may be responsible for the slower warming rate.”
In terms of the outlook on climate change for Mount Washington, there is still a lot to be researched and a lot of unknowns, says Tallman. “Recent preliminary research from the summit has also shown that the winter season is in decline, with overall lower snow depths and more frequent winter melt-out events, which may continue to accelerate in a warming climate.”
It’s easy to see why passionate weather lovers like Tallman look at Mount Washington as living on Cloud Nine. “I have created a lot of memories with many great people during my internship and current position,” says Tallman. “Living and working together as a team creates a strong bond and friendship. We work through extremes together and get to enjoy the calm beautiful moments together as well. Outside of the Mount Washington Observatory, I have never had a similar opportunity to create such a strong friendship with those I work with.”
Tallman is a great example of living out your childhood dreams. Just like the little girl staring out of the window wide-eyed and fascinated at a passing thunderstorm, she continues to follow her passion – just at much greater and extreme heights. “You spend over 50 percent of your time on [the summit] and it truly does begin to feel like a home. It is odd to feel welcomed with open arms to a summit with such harsh conditions, but to me that makes it feel more like home.”