Snow in Western Australia

My snowchase of August 28, 2004

This month I was again on holiday in the south of WA with the flexibility to fit in with the weather, but with the benefit of occasional internet access in towns possessing a Telecentre. After a brief stay at the Stirling Range Retreat in some non-snow weather I headed north to escape the prolonged rain. At Lake Grace I made a pitt stop and checked the forecasts at the same time, and what I saw caused me to head back to the Stirlings.

I roughly followed the routine described on my forecasting page, and all the forecast charts pointed to a snowfall being probable three days ahead, on a Saturday morning. A good looking cold front - the last in a series - was expected to pass through slowly on Friday, with a cold air mass at the 850mb level suggesting a freezing level around or just below the top of Bluff Knoll the next morning. Winds were to be moist unstable southerlies, and the forecast maximum for Albany on Saturday was 13. There didn't appear to be as much moisture as desirable, but snow seekers in WA can't afford to be too fussy!

The weather on Friday proceeded as it was supposed to: the wind changed from NW to SW in the afternoon, then tended towards south, and the temperature dropped. By mid afternoon it was 4 degrees at the Bluff Knoll car park, with plenty of wind and showers still coming.

Snow coated plant on Bluff Knoll
Snow coated plant on Bluff Knoll

I arose at 3:30am (ouch!), breakfasted, and drove to the Bluff Knoll car park for a 4:30am start up the track. I wanted to not only be the first one to the top, but to see the sunrise from the top as well, cloud permitting. It was 1 degree in the car park, with occasional sleet encountered a short way up the track near the waterfall, which was encouraging. Just over half way up, where I saw the first snow in 1992, there was no snow this time but the temperature was down to zero. Not long after I slipped on bit of ice that was hard to spot by torchlight, and upon reaching the saddle in the top ridge and turning left, I saw the first snow.

There wasn't as much snow as in 1992, but a lot more ice, and I was grateful for trekking poles to help me avoid slipping over. Most of the branches and twigs were coated in rime again, up to 1.5 cm thick, and some of the rock puddles were frozen over. It had been only slightly breezy down below, but a wind of 30 knots or more made me once again grateful for every fibre of clothing, as the summit temperature was -1.

Cloud restricted the sunrise views to glimpses of dawn light over Mt Trio to the west, but the warm glow still filtered through the cloud to produce some pleasant lighting effects. Occasional breaks provided some views to the east and south, but I had to wait for them. I left my tripod erected on a rock, ready for photo opportunities, and noticed that over several hours a layer of ice accumulated on the windward side of its metal legs. This resulted from the supercooled moisture in passing clouds condensing directly onto objects below freezing; the thickness of rime on other objects also increased during this time.

The author resting on Bluff Knoll
The author resting on Bluff Knoll

The extent and thickness of the snow varied while I sat on the summit, sheltering in the lee of a rock. At no time did the snow depth exceed about 1cm on open ground - barely enough to cover the surface, but in WA any snow amount is good. Snow showers topped up the level at regular intervals, but snow-melt in the odd sunny breaks exceeded what was being added, and by 10am most of the cover had gone. What remained was mostly coating plants and in the shelter of rocks, though the ice coating the twigs and branches lasted well.

Once the temperature stayed around +1 and it seemed the best snow had gone for good, I decided it was time to go and get some lunch (next time I might take a flask of soup). It felt odd to be leaving just as the first other people were arriving, especially as snow showers were still passing by, but I felt happy that I had experienced the best conditions that this snow event had been able to provide.

Maximum temperatures that day turned out to be 12.1 at Albany, 11.1 at Albany Airport (slightly inland), 10.1 at Ongerup, and 10.0 at Katanning. Bluff Knoll is roughly in the middle of these places. The maximum temperature on the summit is unknown, but another guy who climbed it, who I bumped into later, told me it was about 1 degree around the middle of the day - I doubt if it went much higher than that.

 

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