Saturday, January 6, 2018

An Eyelash-Freezing ‘Icy Hell’

James Loughlin, of Austin, Tex., took a walk up the Mount Washington Auto Road at around 3,900 feet during a break in a SnowCoach tour in Gorham, N.H., on Friday. CreditLibby March for The New York Times
GORHAM, N.H. — The moment you step out into the frozen air on the way up Mount Washington — one of the most frigid spots in the lower 48 — the icy wind steals your breath and freezes your eyelashes. You can’t blink. The cold stabs your face and numbs your earlobes to rubber.
“It’s an icy hell,” said Amy Loughlin, 50, who was visiting from Austin, Tex., and scaling the mountain, the highest in the Northeast, in the back of a SnowCoach — a van retrofitted with tanklike treads to handle the blowing snow and treacherous roads.
With much of the Northeast and Midwest feeling like a block of ice, the temperature here in the high peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains was forecast to drop to 40 degrees below zero overnight Friday. The wind chill could make the air feel as cold as 100 below zero. That is not a typo. Negative. 100.
“We should end up being the coldest location tonight in the lower 48,” said Mike Carmon, senior meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory, who was one of a handful of scientists and others huddled at the top of one of the most dangerous and forbidding places in the country. “We basically just start saying it’s stupid cold outside.”
The temperature on Mount Washington had plunged to 26 below on Friday afternoon — 70 degrees below with wind chill factored in. The wind had gusted up to 122 miles per hour. Only specially outfitted vehicles are allowed on the road up the mountain at this time of year, and on Friday, snowdrifts and ferocious winds blocked even the SnowCoach from going farther.
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Derek Berg, 40, stood on the cliffs at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Me., on Friday.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
It was only getting worse here and all across the Northeast in the wake of a “bomb cyclone” that turned Boston streets into an Arctic sea and left three-foot snowdrifts across New England. Weather forecasters were predicting temperature lows that could shatter century-old records in Worcester, Mass., Hartford and elsewhere.
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Millions of people from Florida to Maine were left shivering as schools closed and flights were canceled this week. Officials said that seven deaths appeared to be tied to the weather.
Windows splintered. Car batteries died. Along the Maine coastline, the flooding left icebergs in people’s yards. Ice fishermen had to keep their smelt bait close to them for fear it would freeze solid. Even snowmobiles coughed and sputtered and refused to start.
Across this American tundra, people called their heating-oil companies for emergency supplies and sat stranded on the sides of roads as tow-truck companies reported five-hour wait times to jump-start a dead battery or tow away a snowbound car. People slept in winter coats and debated whether wool, cotton or silk made for the best long underwear.
In Schenectady, N.Y., it got so cold and drafty that Chris Bendix, an engineering student, rigged up a “blanket cave” by raising a bed, hanging blankets from the side and sleeping inside the makeshift cave, snug against the baseboard heaters.
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Left: Susan Rauscher of South Portland, Me., and her two children, Maci, left, 9, and Anna, 11, braved the frigid temperatures at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth on Friday. Right: Dennis Fitts, 20, after surfing at Higgins Beach in Scarborough, Me. CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times.
In Morrill, Me., Carrie Hall, 42, alternated between feeding applewood logs into her stove, shoveling snow and fortifying herself with sips of whiskey. And while recordkeepers were watching the thermometers as the temperatures fell, Ms. Hall had stopped paying attention.
“What does it matter?” she said. “It’s freezing no matter what the number says it is. It’s just awful.”
Atop Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet above sea level, there is no avoiding the cold. In fact, people here almost brag about it.
“We’re not necessarily the coldest in the country; we’re not necessarily the windiest — it’s the combination that we have of the winds and the temperatures and a lot of fog and a lot of snow,” Mr. Carmon said. That, he said, “is why we consider ourselves one of the most extreme places on earth.”
The meteorologists make hourly trips outside to check their instruments and measure the temperature, wind speed and precipitation. So they sheathe themselves in five layers and pull on ski masks and goggles. But the cold always finds a way to sneak in.
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Snow coaches at the base of Mount Washington in Gorham, N.H., on Friday. CreditLibby March for The New York Times
“It kind of feels like you’re stepping out into a pool of cold water,” Mr. Carmon said.
Even within a few minutes of standing outside at 3,900 feet — two-thirds of the way up — toes and fingers, including those wrapped in multiple layers of clothing, can quickly go numb. The wind turns snowflakes into projectiles that feel as if they are piercing any skin that is exposed.
It was enough to send Ms. Loughlin back into the SnowCoach while her husband, James, continued to brave the elements.
“Love you, mean it!” she shouted to him over the howling wind as she sought shelter.
Mr. Loughlin, whose face was unprotected, returned moments later, his face a stinging red and his eyelashes stuck together.
“I learned a valuable lesson out there,” he said. “Goggles.”
Just driving on the roads around here was an ordeal on Friday, as one young couple found out after they spent Thursday night in a nearby cabin. So much snow piled up so quickly that their car was trapped. They were left trying to shovel a path to the highway, as the snow blew horizontally around them.
Others viewed the weather as something to take advantage of. Surfers paddled into the breaks in Cape Elizabeth, Me.
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Left: Ms. Rauscher watched her children sled at Fort Williams Park. Right: Plunging temperatures and icy winds blasted Mount Washington and surrounding areas in northern New Hampshire.CreditLeft: Tristan Spinski for The New York Times; Right: Libby March for The New York Times
Tim Denoncour, 26, and Ian Hancock, 25, were preparing their skis at the base of Mount Washington to spend the day avalanche training. Both used to cold weather, they seemed relatively unfazed at the prospect of being on the mountain in the deep freeze.
Mr. Denoncour said he knows it is cold “when I can’t feel my face after five minutes.”
But as eye-popping as the wind chill and “real feel” temperatures may be, scientists say they are an imperfect way to measure the cold.
The concept of wind chill traces back to Antarctica, where two scientists, Paul Siple and Charles Passel, came up with a way of measuring how wind affects cold. Their simple experiment in the 1940s involved hanging plastic bottles of water in the wind to see how quickly they froze. From that, they extrapolated the relationship between cold and wind that suggests what it feels like outside, and the likely effect on exposed skin, that make for the highlight of so many winter weather forecasts.
But the use of wind chill as a way to measure cold is problematic — especially in places like Mount Washington, which is known for its extreme environment, said Greg Carbin, chief of the forecast operations branch for the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.
“A lot of people aren’t going to be exposed to the extreme wind,” he said. “Who’s going to be out walking in an 80-mile-per-hour wind?”
Still, he said this winter’s temperatures have been “very, very unusual.”
“Chicago has felt more like Bismarck, and New York City has felt more like Anchorage,” he said. “From Minnesota to Massachusetts, it’s been brutally cold over the last week, and it will continue into next week before we see a change,” he said.
But behind it, he predicted, would come relief. “The thaw is coming,” he said. “We just have to hold out for about another week.”

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