Isolation Tactics from the Mount Washington Observatory Crew

April 8, 2020
Tom Padham, a meteorologist and education specialist at the Mount Washington Observatory, spends a week or more isolated at the top of Mount Washington. Photo courtesy of Mount Washington Observatory

As the world continues to practice physical distancing and many remain isolated to their homes, coping with that alone time is a challenge. The Mount Washington Observatory (MWOB) staff, though, are no strangers to finding ways to occupy their time while in isolation, as their work shifts require spending a week or more holed up at the Observatory on the summit of New Hampshire’s highest peak.

Founded in 1932, the mission of MWOB is to track weather patterns to help predict future storms in the region. It’s most famous for its record of recording the fastest wind speed—231 miles per hour—on April 12, 1934. Today, two crews of scientists alternate staying overnight at the Observatory for a week at a time to record and report hourly weather observations, as well as continue their own research on projects related to the area’s climate patterns, rime ice, air pollution, and more. Much of the data collected by MWOB staff is used by the National Weather Service to help with forecasting throughout the White Mountains, and staff use their research to develop educational programs for students looking to learn more about weather.

But even with all this work to do, MWOB scientists still have plenty of downtime during their shifts. We spoke with Tom Padham, an education specialist at MWOBS, who offers a few proven methods that may help the rest of us cope with isolation while we are staying home.

1. Stick to a Routine

“It’s important to set a schedule for yourself each day,” Padham says. “For me, I have a core responsibility that I have to do up here, including hourly weather observations, whether I like it or not.”

But even with his regular duties, Padham says it’s important to stick to a schedule, with lunch breaks and a task to do list to stay productive. Of course, on occasion that schedule will get disrupted. “Today I have to scrape off the six inches of rime ice (ice formed when water droplets freeze on contact on surfaces in sub-zero temperatures) on the weather tower, and that will take a lot of time,” adds Padham.

For those of us at home, it’s important to create a reasonable schedule each day that includes tasks you need to accomplish, plus time for exercise, reading, arts and crafts, television, or other activities you enjoy.

Padham and former weather observer Taylor Regan go over the latest procedures in their Mount Washington summit office, one part of their daily tasks. Photo courtesy of Mount Washington Observatory

2. Learn Something New

As a way to avoid your mind getting stagnant or stale while remaining indoors, Padham recommends trying something new every day. “Personally, I enjoy cooking,” Padham offers. “There’s a lot of recipes I usually wouldn’t try at home, but up here, if I have the ingredients, it’s fun to learn a new process and make a new meal.”

If cooking isn’t your thing, maybe it’s time to practice an instrument, or learn a foreign language. It can also be shorter tasks, like learning to knit or the dance routine to your favorite song—something that requires you to step outside the box and work on something you haven’t tried before (or always wanted to try). It’s also a good opportunity to try out some DIY projects in your house.

3. Get Some Exercise

In the warmer months, it’s easier for MWOB scientists to get outside for a bit and exercise. In the winter, when wind speeds top 170 mph and snow piles up around the buildings, Padham says crew members exercise indoors. “Even if you are stuck indoors, you shouldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” Padham says. It’s important to incorporate daily exercise into your routine, he adds, to help stay productive.

4. Take Advantage of Technology

Just because MWOB crews are on top of Mount Washington doesn’t mean that they are cut off from the world. “We have WiFi and I do weekly Zoom calls with family and friends to catch up,” Padham says. The staff also regularly watches movies and TV on Netflix and Hulu to pass the time. While we’re all stuck in our homes, it’s easy to plan a family trivia tournament or game night over Zoom, or set up a regular call with friends to look forward to each week.

Students gather to watch a presentation broadcast by the Mount Washington Observatory (note, this photo was taken in 2018, prior to any physical distancing regulations). Photo courtesy of Mount Washington Observatory

5. Focus on the Task at Hand

Isolation comes with new tasks for all of us—some are homeschooling their kids, while others are working remotely. Part of Padham’s job is to help create educational programs for students across the country, which he says helps keep him busy in between other tasks. He recommends that while you are home, be sure to prioritize the tasks you need to get done. (With the outbreak of COVID-19, MWOB now provides free online distance learning for grades 3 to 8, which includes a presentation and Q&As, hosted three times a week on Facebook Live.  Recent topics have included temperature and forecasting.)


  • Read how Mount Washington helped scientists test a weather system for Mount Everest
  • Try some of these off-season rock climbing exercises while stuck indoors
  • Meet the cats of Mount Washington


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Kelleigh Welch

Kelleigh is managing editor of AMC Outdoors.