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As extreme cold comes to New England, researchers look into climate change connection

Though January was unseasonably warm, temperatures could dip to 101 degrees below zero at Mount Washington. New Hampshire’s state climatologist and local weather specialists explain how warmer air in the Arctic is causing colder temperatures in New England.

A screenshot of conditions shown on the live camera at the Mount Washington Observatory tower in Conway, N.H., at 9:25 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1.Via Mount Washington Observatory live stream

CONCORD, N.H. — This weekend could bring record-setting cold, with temperatures as low as 101 degrees below zero with wind chill on the summit of Mount Washington, home to some of New England’s most extreme weather. In Concord, N.H., it could be as cold as 40 degrees below zero with wind chill.

This extreme cold is due to “a piece of really true Siberian Arctic air making its way south,” said Francis Tarasiewicz, a weather observer and education specialist at the Mount Washington Observatory, located at the summit of the mountain.

Warm air has moved over the North Pole, causing the jet stream to be less stable and sag south, he explained. Whether climate change is exacerbating the phenomenon is still being studied.


Temperatures predicted at the summit are cold enough to cause frostbite in a minute or less, Tarasiewicz said. In spite of the danger, the atmosphere at the observatory is mostly one of excitement.

“We’re all sort of looking at the forecasts and the numbers in disbelief, but we’re grinning the whole time,” he said. “There’s definitely an excited buzz up here with this type of weather. It’s sort of why we signed up to work at a place like this and especially if there’s a chance to break an all-time record low up here on the summit.”

The current record of 47 degrees below zero (that’s without wind chill) was established at the observatory in 1934. On Friday night the ambient temperature is expected to fall to between 35 degrees below zero and 50 degrees below zero, he said. Winds could reach 60 to 105 miles per hour, according to the latest forecast.

Tarasiewicz told the Globe that when he was out in winds that strong his ears kept popping because the air pressure was changing so rapidly.


Dressing for those temperatures means not leaving any skin exposed. “If you’re dressed properly, you don’t feel the cold, you feel the force [of the wind]. And what you hear is the roar,” said Rob Kirsch, who serves on the board of trustees for the Mount Washington Observatory.

Kirsh started working at the Observatory as a volunteer in January 1978, drawn by the idea of living on a mountain in the middle of winter. When you’re out in winds that are stronger than 100 miles per hour, he said, it’s “almost total sensory overload.” Unlike gravity, the force of the wind isn’t constant — it’s always changing.

This latest cold snap comes during an atypically warm winter brought on by climate change, said New Hampshire State Climatologist Mary Stampone. Nighttime temperatures in January were about 10 degrees warmer on average than they typically are this time of year. Portsmouth, N.H., is experiencing the warmest January they’ve had since observers there began keeping records in the 1950s, said Stampone.

“We are not mentally ready for this,” she said. She urged residents to take precautions to stay safe in the cold temperatures.

The link between climate change and extreme cold weather is an active area of research. Over the past 10 years, some researchers have found that there could be a connection.

“It seems counterintuitive, but the warming of the Arctic weakens the jet stream, which allows it to wobble,” said Stampone. “And when it wobbles, it gets these wave patterns, where it dips far south over continental interiors in the mid latitudes — like us and Central Asia. And behind that is the really bitter-cold air.”


Stampone said researchers are looking into whether these cold air outbreaks are occurring more frequently and whether they’re caused by global warming. But for now, records don’t go back long enough for scientists to make a definitive determination.

The coldest temperature recorded at the summit on Mt. Washington for Feb. 3 is 32 degrees below zero, and the record for Feb. 4 is 35 degrees below zero, both set in 1963, according to meteorologist Ryan Knapp of the Mount Washington Observatory.

Amanda Gokee can be reached at Follow her @amanda_gokee.