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The Highest Anemometer-Measured Wind Speeds on Earth

   Christopher C. Burt  ·  February 22, 2020, 3:38 AM EST
   [Burt-wind-gusts-MWO-2.20.jpg]

   Above: The Mount Washington Observatory on an icy winter day. It was here that a wind gust of 231 mph was measured on April 12, 1934. It remained the highest-ever anemometer-measured wind gust on Earth until an even higher gust was observed on Barrow Island, Australia, in 1996. (Courtesy Mount Washington Observatory)

   On February 9 this year, an anemometer at an elevation of 9186 feet on Mt. Kirkwood in the California Sierra reported a wind gust of 209 mph. If validated, this would be the highest wind gust on record for the state of California and potentially the fourth highest gust measured by an anemometer at any site on Earth.

   However, a few hours later, the National Weather Service office in Sacramento posted a tweet questioning the validity of the measurement, noting: “the station seems to have multiple errors including 92 percent relative humidity during strong winds and the wind seemed to have been unusually strong the past few days at this station”.

   This incident highlights how challenging it can be to confirm that an extremely high wind measurement is valid. Keeping these limitations in mind (see the “Usual Caveats” section at bottom), just what are the highest wind gusts ever measured on Earth by a land-based anemometer? By definition, we will exclude Doppler-estimated wind speeds from tornadoes or dropsonde wind measurements from within tropical storms.

The top ten wind gusts measured over land

   If we include the aforementioned 209-mph gust reported in California on February 9, my research finds that the top 10 highest wind gust speeds ever measured on Earth would be the following:

   1.253 mph • Barrow Island, Australia • April 10, 1996

   2.231 mph • Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, USA •. April 12, 1934

   3.211.7 mph • Paso Real de San Diego, Cuba •. August 30, 2008

   4.209 mph (still to be verified) • Kirkwood Mountain, CA, USA •. February 9, 2020

   5.207 mph • Thule Air Force base, Greenland •. March 8, 1972

   6.199.5 mph • Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire, USA • April 2, 1973

   7.199.5 mph • Ward Mountain, California, USA • February 20, 2017

   8.199 mph • St Barts, Caribbean. •. September 6, 2017

   9.191 mph • Lanyu, Taiwan. •. September 22, 1995

   10.191 mph • Miyako-Jima, Japan •. September 13, 1966

   Here is a more in depth look at each one of these events.

   1. 253 mph • Barrow Island, Australia • April 10, 1996

   This measurement was made on an island off the northwestern coast of Western Australia by an anemometer owned by oil and gas engineering company WAPET (now owned by Chevron). The wind gust occurred during the passage of Tropical Cyclone Olivia, which was categorized as a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of 140 mph at the time it passed over Barrow Island on April 10, 1996. The anemometer was located at an elevation of 210 feet.

   The anemometer that made the measurement was a heavy duty three-cup Synchrotac that was regularly inspected and maintained by the WNI Science and Engineering Company (now known as MetOcean Engineers). The anemometer was later sent to Europe for testing and calibration. It consequently passed the tests and the wind gust measurement was determined to be valid by a WMO committee.

   How could such a wind speed occur in what was nominally not an exceptionally strong storm? The hypothesis is that a tornado-scale mesovortex embedded in the eye wall of the cyclone passed directly over the anemometer on Barrow Island—an incredibly lucky (or unlucky) strike akin to an EF5 tornado passing directly over a similarly-hardened anemometer someplace in the United States.

   Jeff Masters mentions a similar event occurring during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 when a dropsonde deployed by a hurricane-hunting aircraft passed through what may have been a mesovortex in the hurricane’s eye wall at an altitude of 1400 meters. The peak measured gust was 239 mph.

   2. 231 mph • Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, USA • April 12, 1934

   This long-standing and much-renowned world-record wind gust had been thoroughly investigated and widely accepted for decades until it was dethroned by the WMO verification of the Barrow Island gust. The famed 231-mph gust was measured at 1:21 p.m. on April 12, 1934. The anemometer in use was unique: it had been specially constructed for use on Mt. Washington and tested in a wind tunnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The gust occurred just 18 months after the Mt. Washington weather station began operations.

   Curiously, the storm responsible for the high winds that day on the summit of Mt. Washington was not exceptional. A relatively weak low-pressure system was migrating up the coast of New England. Valley wind gusts in New Hampshire were only in the 30-50 mph range. The storm did, however, have a tight pressure gradient oriented on a southeast-northwest axis, thanks to another low-pressure system that was located over southeastern Canada.

   This configuration of the pressure gradient, combined with the topography of the surrounding mountains and valleys, produced something of a wind tunnel over the summit of Mt. Washington (elevation 6288 feet). The summit observatory also measured a five-minute sustained wind from the southeast of 188 mph.

   The second-highest wind gust ever measured at the site is 180 mph in March 1940; more recently, a gust of 171 mph was measured in February 2019.

   3. 211.7 mph • Paso Real de San Diego, Cuba • August 30, 2008

   Hurricane Gustav roared onto the coast of southwestern Cuba on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 2008, with the eye passing over the province of Pinar del Rio. A Dines pressure tube anemometer on the roof of the weather office in Paso Real de San Diego measured a peak wind gust of 340 km/p (211.7 mph) prior to the failure of the instrument.

   The gust was investigated by the WMO and declared valid in 2009. In a Cat 6 entry posted by Jeff Masters on Dec. 30, 2008, he posits that the wind in the storm’s eye wall was funneled through gaps in a mountain range just north of the town, enhancing the wind’s intensity.

   4. 209 mph • Kirkwood Mountain, California, USA • February 9, 2020 (not yet verified)

   As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog, this value is under investigation. The National Weather Service offices in Sacramento and Reno have expressed doubts as to the gust’s validity due to abnormally high humidity reported by the automated sensor at 7:45 a.m., the time of the measurement. The site is located at an elevation of 9186 feet near the top of ski lift #6 at Kirkwood Ski Resort.

   This wind gust did not occur during a big Pacific storm (like that which occurred on Mt. Ward, as discussed below). Instead, it was the result of an extremely tight pressure gradient that developed over much of California on February 9. This was the type of event that causes the so-called Diablo and Santa Ana winds that plague the state during the fall (usually) and cause many of the state’s worst wildfires. On Feb. 9, extreme winds were also measured on the summit of Mt. St. Helens in Napa County (82 mph) and Mt. Diablo near San Francisco (72 mph) in Alameda County. Considerable tree damage and widespread power outages occurred across northern California.

   5. 207 mph • Thule Air Force Base, Greenland • March 8, 1972

   Thule Air Force Base is a large U.S. military facility located on the northwestern shore of Greenland (latitude 76°31’N), far above the Arctic circle. The base is occupied year round by some 5,000 U.S. and Danish personnel.

   A typical nor’easter tracked up the U.S. Atlantic coast on March 4-6, 1972, and then explosively intensified as it skirted Canada’s Labrador Province and continued north into Davis Strait and Baffin Bay west of Greenland. A peak wind gust of 207 mph was measured on a Bendix-Friez Aerovane anemometer at Phase Shack #7 (an off-base survival shelter located six miles east of the base) on March 8. Winds were sustained at 120 knots (138 mph) or greater for a full four hours during the height of the storm, with temperatures averaging -15°F (–21°C).

   A weather observer (John Kurasiewicz) at the shelter reported, “The storm was the worst I have seen [since his arrival at Thule in 1965]. During the height of the storm, the sides and, for the first time, the roof was constantly pelted with rocks and chunks of ice. All of us became very worried when three windows scattered throughout the complex smashed by rocks and ice.”

   Note that Phase Shack #7 was placed at the base of the Greenland Ice Sheet in a valley between two small mountain ranges, so gravitational downslope airflows off the ice cap (katabatic winds) make the site especially vulnerable to high winds. At the air force base itself, the top wind gust measured during the storm was only 110 mph.

   6. 199.5 mph • Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire • April 2, 1973

   Cannon Mountain is located about 20 miles southwest of Mt. Washington and, like its big brother, is often blasted by extreme winds. Its summit weather station (elevation 4186 feet) registered a series of wind gusts peaking at 199.5 mph (the upper limit of the instrument’s capability) as measured with a three-cup Belfort anemometer.

   It’s likely that the wind gusted over 200 mph, since at one point the anemometer reading was stuck at 199.5 mph for three long seconds. The observers at the site during the storm, Harry Simonds and D.E. Glidden of the University of Massachusetts, noted that at the height of the storm, “The floor began to vibrate and the noise was deafening…we feared the south wall might collapse. A small part of the roof was torn off, a transmitting antenna was bent to the north, and a window in the Tramway gallery was exploded.” A detailed account of this event can be found in the August 1974 edition of Weatherwise magazine: “The Great Windstorm of 2 April, 1973 on Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire” by D.E. Glidden, Univ. of Massachusetts Climatological Research Project.

   Mt. Washington observed a maximum gust of only 130 mph that day, lower than Mt. Cannon’s winds, because of local topographic features that funneled the winds from a slightly different direction than those that affected Mt. Washington in 1934.

   7. 199 mph • Ward Mountain, California, USA • February 20, 2017

   A gust of 199 mph was measured on an anemometer on the summit of Ward Mountain (elevation 8643 feet), located in the Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow Ski Resort, just west of Lake Tahoe, at around 11 pm EST on February 20, 2017. The high winds were a result of a very powerful Pacific storm (the type often associated with atmospheric rivers) that slammed into California that week.

   There were reportedly two Campbell Scientific Model CS215 Taylor Scientific three-cup anemometers in place, one on the summit of Ward Mountain and another 2.5 miles away on another ridge. Both are private stations owned by Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, and both reported gusts well above 180 mph. Data from these stations is managed by the Reno-based Western Weather Group and shared with NWS/Reno.

   A follow-up investigation by the SCEC (California State Climate Extremes Committee) later confirmed the value as valid.

   8. 199 mph • St. Barts (Barthélemy), Caribbean • September 6, 2017

   Hurricane Irma, one of several Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes in 2017, swept through the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean on the morning of Sept. 6 with 180-mph sustained winds. Among the islands devastated was Saint Barthélemy (also known as St. Barts), where a personal weather station (PWS) measured a peak wind gust of 199 mph. The station was operated by Serge Brin. Unlike all the other wind events listed in this blog (except the yet-to-be-confirmed Mt. Kirkwood event), this wind gust has not yet been investigated, so we can not propose it as an official figure. However, there is much circumstantial evidence to back the claim. For the full story, see Jeff Masters’ Cat 6 entry from January 30, 2018.

   9. 191 mph • Lanyu (Orchid Island), Taiwan • September 22, 1995

   Very little information is available concerning this extreme wind event, which took place on Orchid Island (also known by its provincial name of Lanyu), located about 50 miles due east of the southern tip of Taiwan. Super Typhoon Ryan’s eye passed over or very near the island (population 5000) on Sept. 22, 1995. At around 10 a.m. on that day an official WMO station (ID#46762, elevation 325 m or about 1000 feet) reported a wind gust of 191 mph. The JTWC (Joint Typhoon Warning Center) noted in its report that a peak Dvorak rating of 7.3 was achieved around the same time the typhoon passed over Lanyu, an exceptionally high figure for using this satellite-based method of determining tropical cyclone intensity).

   Here is all we know (aside from references therefrom) about the event, from page 129 of the JTWC 1995 annual report summarizing Northwest Pacific typhoons of that year.

   “Record tying wind gust at 220300Z September: Ryan passed near the Taiwanese island of Lanyu (WMO46762) where a peak wind gust of 166kt (85.3m/s) tied the strongest wind gust ever recorded in a typhoon. The other event occurred at Miyako-Jima (WMO47927) in September 1966 near the eye of Typhoon Cora.”

   Curiously, the OGIMET data for Lanyu on Sept. 22 indicates a maximum wind gust of just 64.8 kph (39.8 mph) that day—a value that is highly suspect, since Super Typhoon Ryan did pass over or very close to the island that day.

   10. 191 mph • Miyako-Jima, Japan • September 5, 1966

   Super Typhoon Cora cut a path across the extreme southern Ryukyu Islands of Japan on Sept. 5, 1966, with the eye of the storm passing over the small island of Miyako and its town of Miyako-Jima (about 170 miles southwest of Okinawa). The island was subjected to 13 continuous hours of 89-mph+ sustained winds, with a top wind gust of 191 mph reported according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. Minimum pressure during the storm was 917 mb just before the typhoon struck the island. Information concerning the anemometer in use at that time is not known. Despite the fact that half of the island’s 11,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, there were no reported fatalities.

Runner-up

   In the (likely) scenario that the Kirkwood Mountain wind gust of 209 mph is invalidated, then the #10 spot on the list would be a 186-mph gust measured at the Blue Hill Observatory, Massachusetts, on Sept. 21, 1938 during the Great Atlantic Hurricane that devastated New England and Long Island, New York, that year.

The usual caveats

   Of course, this list does not purport to be a list of the highest surface winds ever to have occurred in recent Earth history. They are only the highest known wind gusts captured by a reliable anemometer that managed to survive the conditions. Doppler-indicated wind speeds of over 300 mph have been measured in a EF5 tornado (302 mph at an altitude above ground of 100 meters at Bridge Creek, Oklahoma on May 3, 1999). Also, very few anemometers are physically capable of withstanding winds over 150 mph, so in many cases, during powerful tropical storms, they failed at a certain threshold for a variety of reasons (structure failure, debris hits, etc.). Of course, it should also be noted that hurricane-hunting aircraft have measured higher winds while investigating Category 5 tropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins.

   Christopher C. Burt

   Weather Historian

   KUDOS: To Jeff Masters, who researched the wind events at St. Barts, Barrow Island, and Cuba to great depth in past Category 6 posts for WU, from which I used information and images for this blog.

   The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.
   author image

Christopher C. Burt

   Christopher C. Burt is the author of "Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book." He studied meteorology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

   emailccburt@earthlink.net 

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