Peak Experience

For meteorologist and MSU Denver alumna Cyrena-Marie Briedé, the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather” is a perfect place to work.

By Tom Wilmes

Publish Date: June 24, 2014

Every hour on the hour for the past 82 years and counting, someone at Mount Washington Observatory steps outside with a handheld thermometer to measure the temperature and dew point. In whiteout snowstorms, extreme cold and triple-digit wind speeds throughout the year, staff members personally monitor conditions at the only permanent mountaintop weather station of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

“What’s special about our data set is that we’ve been collecting data every hour and in the same way since the observatory was founded in 1932, with very little change in variables,” says Cyrena-Marie Briedé, director of summit operations at Mount Washington Observatory and a Metropolitan State University of Denver alumna (B.S. meteorology ’05). “It’s a very long, consistent climate record that’s used in research and forecast models around the world.”

There’s plenty to observe at the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington, in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, is the tallest thing from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Carolinas. The peak’s wide-open exposure, coupled with its orientation and other factors, has a “finger over a garden hose” effect that forces wind up and over the mountain, Briedé explains, squeezing and accelerating as it funnels across New England. Nearly every storm system that moves across the United States ends up passing over the area.

The fastest human-recorded surface wind speed—231 mph—was clocked here in 1934.

Meteorologists use data collected by the observatory to improve the accuracy and range of their forecast models. Its unique location and the mountain’s extreme conditions are also ideal for testing a wide range of hypotheses and products. Organizations such as NASA, the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, the National Forest Service, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and numerous universities use the observatory to study cloud physics, mountain meteorology, cosmic rate flux, ice formation, high-elevation climate change and many other topics.

As director of summit operations, it’s Briedé’s job to evaluate researchers’ testing plans and help them employ the most effective measurement methods, as well as to provide a realistic expectation of what it’s like to work on the summit. She’s also responsible for the overall operation of the weather station, maintaining and improving its technological infrastructure, managing transportation and logistical support, and for the general safety of everyone on the mountain.

“Cyrena is the go-to person to handle the logistics of any research project that requires measurement on the summit or simply getting people up there,” says Eric Kelsey, director of research at Mount Washington Observatory and a research assistant professor at Plymouth State University. “She makes sure that we have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do what we’re hoping to do, and she also does a lot of problem-solving on her end.”

“I learned more about meteorology in the one year that I spent at Metro than in the three years I spent at Oklahoma,” she says. “The level of personal connection that the professors have with students at Metro—not just with their student, but any student in the program, really—provides a personal level of guidance and assistance that you don’t often find at the larger universities.”

Briedé went to work with AIRDAT, a NASA contractor that tests meteorological sensors on aircrafts, following graduation. She then spent several years working for a Denver-based air-quality monitoring company, traveling primarily to Alaska to install and calibrate weather stations. Working in harsh, remote landscapes accessible only by helicopter taught Briedé to be extremely resourceful and creative in her problem-solving, and solidified her passion for field work. It was also great preparation for life atop Mount Washington.

“If I could take a little piece of everything I enjoyed from my past positions and put it all into one job description, it would be for what I’m doing right now as the director of summit operations at Mount Washington,” she says. “I feel like the luckiest person on earth.”

Briedé, 31, was just 29 years old when she applied for the director of summit operations position. She wasn’t expecting much to come from it, but working at the Mount Washington Observatory had been on her bucket list for years and, as she says, “You’re never going to do crazy things if you don’t take crazy chances.”

The four-person search committee—which included Kelsey and Executive Director Scot Henley—didn’t think that the notion of hiring Briedé was the least bit crazy.“At the end of the day, we sat down over pizza and commented, ‘She’s the one,’” Kelsey says. “Cyrena has deep expertise in working with instrumentation in extreme weather conditions, and also brings a personality that’s very outgoing, considerate and passionate. She’s really good with people, and a great host and ambassador for the observatory.”

Henley recalls that Briedé was also the only applicant who included pictures with her cover letter—images of her covered in snow, climbing a weather tower and fixing instruments in the Alaskan tundra.

“In my mind, the successor for [30-year observatory veteran] Ken Rancourt was going to be another big, burly mountain man,” he says. “But Cyrena is a young, talented meteorologist with incredible field experience and poise whose skill set perfectly aligned with what we were looking for.”

Briedé accepted the job in 2012, and so far the position has been an ideal fit for her. She splits her time between the summit station, administrative offices at the base of the mountain and speaking engagements, and has already identified several ways to improve efficiencies in the observatory’s instrumentation.

When she’s not working, you’ll most likely find Briedé outdoors—either skiing or hiking with her two dogs. Her parents are planning a winery at their home in Virginia, and Briedé has taken a recent interest in studying microclimates around the proposed vineyard.

“Even in my personal life, meteorology tends to take over,” she says. “It just goes to show how much
I enjoy it.”