As the Main Range sits under a lovely (and rapidly melting) May snowfall, new research into snowpatches provides an interesting result.

Once a common occurrence, the survival of three snowpatches, two on Mount Twynam and one on the Etheridge Range near Mount Kosciuszko was the first time snow had lasted winter to winter since 1997.

In 1996 Australian National University Emeritus Professor Dr Ken Green commenced an unbroken series of summers scanning the mountain tops around Mt Kosciuszko, recording monthly which of 26 surveyed snowpatches were still visible.

Professor Green said that while snowpatches occupy only a tiny portion of our highest mountains, they played a disproportionately important role in the alpine environment.

PHOTO 1 Walking past Twynam upper snowpatch 20230501

“As snowpatches cover the ground for much of the summer, only the hardiest plants can survive being buried under them and still find the time to reproduce after they melt,” Professor Green said.

“During the drier summer months, snowpatch meltwater nurtures downstream plant communities, and snowpatches are also able to shift rocks and soil, sculpting the ground on which they sit, creating hollows and small ramparts of eroded material.”

“Our snowpatches, and the unique Snowpatch Herbfield ecological community they support, are already at the top of our highest peaks, and in a warming world, there is nowhere for them to go, placing them at an extremely high risk of being lost forever.”

Research being undertaken by University of Canberra PhD student Phil Campbell, has shown that snowpatches are now melting two weeks earlier than 45 years ago.

PHOTO 2 Mount Kosciuszko snowpatch 2023

ABOVE: Dr Green and Mr Norbert Fischer prepare to deploy data loggers on the slopes of Mt Kosciuszko in January 2023.

“Using satellite data from 1978, the average melt date of the last snowpatch has moved from the tenth to the eighth week of the calendar year,” Mr Campbell said.

“Once our last patches would on average melt in mid-March. Now they are only surviving until the end of February, so this year’s survival of three to the return of the winter snowpack in early May is quite extraordinary.”

“Snow surviving until the next winter has also become rarer, occurring just five times since 1978, in 1987, 1992, 1993, 1997, and 2023. These changes are in line with the reduction in the winter snowpack due to global warming and is a key reason the Snowpatch Herbfield ecological community was listed in 2016 as critically endangered.”

PHOTO 3 Drilling snowpatch on Twynam 20230501

ABOVE: Dr Ken Green and Dr Duanne White drilling the Twynam snowpatch for ice cores for density measurements. 1 May 2023.

The Australian experience is being repeated globally in other mountain environments, with Scottish snowpatch researcher Iain Cameron drawing upon over 300 years of records to track changes in Scottish Highland snowpatches.

The environment in the Highlands is very similar to that found in our highest alps, with rounded, ice-sculpted peaks and a moderately deep maritime type snowpack, with no current glaciers.

A snowpatch researcher for the past several decades, Mr Cameron said that snowpatches played and important social, and well as environmental, role in the Highlands.

“In the Highlands, providing access to snow in the middle of summer was a condition of land ownership and frequently mentioned in records of the time. Some snowpatches even had names making tracking them in the records of the time easier.”

“Until late last century, snow rarely failed to last until the next winter. Now the Australian experience of snowpatches melting out during summer and autumn is becoming increasingly common, with 2023 already looking like it will fail to have a snowpatch last through to the next winter.”

PHOTO 4 Ice core drilling on Twynam snowpatch 20230501

ABOVE: Dr Ken Green and Dr Duanne White drilling the Twynam snowpatch for ice cores for density measurements. 1 May 2023.

Get involved

Those interested in contributing to the ongoing research into our snowpatches are encouraged to search through their old photograph albums for dated pictures of the alps during summer and autumn.

“If you have old photos of snowpatches and know at least the year and month, we’d love a scanned copy,” Mr Campbell said.

Just send them to and we’ll incorporate them into the research to help build a clearer record of what is happening to our snowpatches.


HEADER IMAGE: Snowpatches hug the lee slopes of the main range near Mount Carruthers. 4 March 2023.

Photo credit Phil Campbell, free use granted.