The frog and the art of snow forecasting
Tech Updates

The frog and the art of snow forecasting

In the headwaters of the Southern Ocean, just below the Great Australian Bight, a vast spiraling stream of icy air is swirling east.

Before the sun rises in a lounge area in suburban Wollongong, a man known as The Frog digs over satellite maps and data sets to plot the path of this meteorological beast.

The frog and the art of snow forecasting

On a hunch, he can accurately predict when the monster heights will deliver the next big dump across the country’s ski fields — though not always exactly how much snow will arrive.

Snow forecasting is an exact and imprecise science simultaneously, says Pete Taylor.

Considered Australia’s best at what he does, he should know.

He is probably the only expert in this obscure field who still does his work based on personal observations rather than sophisticated calculations.

“I’m probably the only human predictor left,” he tells AAP.

“Nowadays, everyone uses some sort of algorithm. I’m the only one who continues to see something I think will happen.”

This winter, the swings in the Southern Hemisphere have given gifted skiers and snowboarders the best season opening in more than 20 years.

At Australia’s largest resort, Perisher, a foot of snow – or half good seasonal value – limited early opening. Thredbo’s falls have been 125cm, with elevators in operation since Saturday.

Further south, the story is similar. Mt Bullah (76 cm), Mt Hotham (94 cm), and Falls Creek (95 cm) are also in use.

“Everything looks good because the high-pressure systems involved have shifted much further south than normal,” Taylor says.

“We got really lucky. The La Nina pattern, with so much moisture around it, meant it looked like we were going to see a lot of rain.

“But because the highs have shifted down, they’re pushing a lot of cold air up from the south, and it all mixes up.”

He thinks the good times will continue for at least two or three weeks, with the next big dump on June 22.

To be the best ski season ever, snow depths would have to exceed 3.5m between mid-June and October, as they were in 1981, according to Snowy Hydro’s data dating back to the 1950s.

The further into the future forecasters look, the more difficult the prospect of accurate predictions becomes. Projections are also complicated by the chance of precipitation falling at lower elevations and manifesting as rain.

“Sometimes in the beginning, I saw something, and I got a little excited; I thought it would be 40cm or 50cm of snow, and it would get to 20cm, and people would be disappointed,” says Mr Taylor. †

…”So I go down to the lower end, and as things get closer, if I’m really confident in it, I step it up.”

It’s a thin line. There can be a few degrees between a major landfill and powder washout, while waterfalls of the same weather system can vary widely between resorts.

The Frog’s forecasts for NSW and Victoria will be published on snowatch.com.au for five, 10, and 15 days. He then provides general long-range observations and a seven-day report for southern New Zealand.

It takes about 90 minutes of analysis each morning before Mr. Taylor heads for his “real job” as a graphic designer. The predictor is an art school graduate with no formal scientific background.

After joining an online forum in the 1990s, he began talking to other snow enthusiasts about how to make the most of the ski season and became interested in studying meteorological maps.

When his self-taught predictions started to gain attention, people began emailing for advice on the best time to go to the mountains. A trickle became a flood, so he set up his own free website.

Initially, he used the pseudonym “The Frog” to remain anonymous, but he gave up on it as his confidence grew.

“I just look at the data and type out what I see,” he says of his method. “Actually, it is.”

It was good enough to convince the organizers to postpone the World Cup air skiing events on Mt Buller in the early 2000s to accommodate more favorable conditions.

Over the years, the process has become more complicated, with the addition of wind power and the likelihood of conditions allowing artificial snow production to complement natural falls.

“I’ve refined things and found a few more sources,” Taylor says.

“There’s much more to look at on the internet than when I started.”

Although travel companies advertise on his site, he does not charge customers for forecasting.

“I honestly couldn’t guarantee that what I told them would be 100 percent correct, so… I couldn’t,” he says.