Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Happy 128th Birthday, Blue Hill Observatory!

Blue Hill Reservation.  Parking and visitor center on rt 138, 
top of Great Blue Hill shown by Summit Rd, which winds beside ski trails.

Went for a lazy Saturday late afternoon jaunt up Great Blue Hill with Stephen. The Trailside Museum at the bottom of the hill was open, and some of the animals were weathering the cold in their enclosures.  We spent a little time looking at the red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture and the pond full of mallards, but as always the river otter stole the show with his (her?) acrobatic swimming.  We had neither the time nor the money to go into the museum itself, but headed up the red dot trail.

It was a nice walk if hazardous (icy), with the bonus that we got into the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, which celebrated its 128th birthday on Jan 31.  The Blue Hill Observatory boasts the longest continuous weather record in the country.  We watched the Scouts of Troop 1 Acton fly kites, and then ventured in to see if we could look around.  We paid our $3.50 plus $1 for Stephen, and were pretty much left alone to explore.  My expression of surprise at finding a gift shop inside proved to our guide it had been at least a decade since last I'd visited.  We spent most of our time on the roof taking in the view.  I was surprised that it was difficult to spot the observation tower only a quarter-mile away, and someone had to point out the verdigris-coated peak of the tower roof, just peeking between tree crowns.  

Observatory nearing sunset in overcast.

Some of the instruments on the roof.  All of these measure wind speed and some also direction, 
except the spiky thing at farthest left--??

This thing is my personal favorite for cleverness: the glass globe sharply focuses sunlight to burn marks on the green card just visible inside the metal bowl; the resulting burn track as the sun crosses the sky makes a permanent  timed record of clear weather, since unburned portions result from interference by clouds.

View from the roof of the tower: Ponkapoag pond in the distance.

View from the roof of the tower.

Stephen thought this was a pretty cool place.  Just to the right of him is a lightning rod 
that goes to a heavy cable, thence down the outside of the tower to ground.

Stephen stands on the ice of a small pond beside Coon Hollow Path on the way down.

Blue Hill Observatory was founded by a young amateur meteorologist Abbott Lawrence Rotch, scion of an old and wealthy Boston family, who invested part of his inheritance to build it.  After Rotch's death of appendicitis in 1912, the Observatory was bequeathed, with an endowment, to Harvard University, which had it until 1971 when the Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission (administrator of the Blue Hill Reservation in which it sits).  It has long been and continues to be a National Weather Service observing station, and involved in the American Meteorological Society.  Just before the turn of the present century, the Blue Hill Observatory Science Center wa founded, "expanding ever since its aim of "increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, atmospheric science."  The Scouts of troop 1 Acton, at work on their meteorology merit badges, were witness to this new focus. 

Weekdays the Observatory is staffed by professional meteorologists, who spend their days recording instrument readings and performing complex calculations.  On weekends specially trained amateur observers take over. Most of the time volunteers are around to man the gift shop, lead tours and answer questions.  The volunteer I spoke with was completely familiar with station operations, and an enthusiastic teacher.   

The walk up Blue Hill to the tower and observatory is less than a mile uphill through forest over soil and rocks with no scrambling necessary, and takes less than half an hour.  Tours are 10am to 4pm on Saturdays year-round, and also on Sundays at this time of year.  Of course, the Blue Hill Reservation is much bigger and you can walk all day (or more) on well-marked paths without coming to the end of it.

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