By JOHN KOZIOL
Union Leader Correspondent
GREEN’S GRANT – With its new $1 million Extreme Mount Washington museum atop the Northeast’s tallest peak, the Mount Washington Observatory hopes to fire the imaginations of the next generation of scientists.
Located at the 6,288-foot summit of the highest peak in the Northeast, the North Conway-based observatory is one of the few mountaintop weather stations in the world. For 41 years, it has been home to the Mount Washington Museum.
On Friday, with Gov. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Kelly Ayotte and other dignitaries on hand, the observatory celebrated the grand reopening of New Hampshire’s highest museum. Built in 1973 as the Mount Washington Museum, it will now be known as Extreme Mount Washington.
The name change, which follows four years of planning, extensive fundraising and some creative construction, better reflects the observatory’s focus, which is weather and, more specifically, the winter season, said Executive Director Scot Henley.
Hassan noted that the old museum drew 100,000 visitors annually during its relatively brief season.
The governor was one of several speakers who pointed out the irony that Mount Washington – which is generally agreed to have “the worst weather in the world” – reinforced that perception on Friday when rain and heavy fog on the Mount Washington Auto Road forced the ceremonies to be held in the auto road’s Base Lodge rather than in the new museum.
Hassan thanked the many groups and individuals who came together to help raise money to transform the museum into a “state-of-the-art” hands-on experience that celebrates what Mount Washington is best known for – bad weather, particularly in the winter – and educates visitors about it.
With some 100,000 visitors annually, the museum has been the best-attended museum in the Granite State, Hassan said, adding that the observatory of which it is part is doing important work in understanding and addressing climate change.
Ayotte didn’t mention climate change in her remarks, but said Extreme Mount Washington would help children learn to appreciate science better. Later, the senator presented Henley with a flag that flew outside her Washington, D.C., office on April 12, 2014 – the 80th anniversary of the “Big Wind.”
On April 12, 1934, at 1:21 p.m., observers recorded a wind gust of 231 mph, which is the highest wind ever recorded by humans, and according to the observatory, “the highest natural surface wind velocity ever officially recorded by means of an anemometer anywhere in the world.”
(In April 1996, Cyclone Olivia generated a top wind of 253 mph when it passed over Barrow Island, Australia, but the speed was recorded by automated equipment, not by a person, which allows Mount Washington to maintain its unique honor.)
The anemometer used to record the “Big Wind” is one of the items on display at Extreme Mount Washington, which also boasts a snow cat simulator that gives visitors the opportunity to feel and see what it’s like to drive up the auto road in winter.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, in a letter read by aide Chuck Henderson, said the observatory plays a “significant role” in weather education.
Jeffrey Rose, the commissioner of the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, pointed out that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the acquisition from Dartmouth College of the 60 acres atop the summit, which is now Mount Washington State Park.
“I could not think of a better birthday present,” Rose added, “than this wonderful museum.”
While retaining older exhibits featuring the flora and fauna of the mountain, the new museum will, in the snow-cat simulator, let visitors feel what it’s like to make “one of the most harrowing commutes in America,” said Henley, and through the magic of time-lapsed videography and giant video screens, will also give visitors a “clear-day view” from the summit.
Henley said the observatory has begun working with Plymouth State University and was also hoping to partner with the University of New Hampshire and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the meteorology and economics of climate change.