Five years ago today: New Zealand's once-in-a-generation snowfall

A snow flurry whipped through central Auckland on August 14 2011, with it falling on Queen Street. Members of the public were caught in the cold. Photo / Sarah Ivey
A snow flurry whipped through central Auckland on August 14 2011, with it falling on Queen Street. Members of the public were caught in the cold. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Where were you in the great New Zealand snowstorm of 2011?

Five years ago today (that's right, five years) the country saw its most severe snowfall since 1976, a once-in-a-generation weather event that stopped mail, cancelled buses and closed schools.

Temperatures in Wellington peaked at 6.8 degrees, with ice making many roads impassable. In the north, a handful residents were hospitalised after strong winds brought down trees and powerlines. In the south many homes and businesses were entirely cut off, with flights grounded in Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin.

The Wellington cable car arriving at the top of it's run during the Big Snow of 2011. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The Wellington cable car arriving at the top of it's run during the Big Snow of 2011. Photo/Mark Mitchell

But the winter wonder also brought excitement and joy - the Beehive was blanketed in white, children everywhere delighted in making snowmen in their backyards, and the day aftervAucklanders were amazed to see snow flurries on Queen Street.

Initially some doubted the claims, saying much of the white stuff was a soft hail known as graupel, but forecasters eventually confirmed there were snowflakes in the mix of precipitation falling on the city.

It was the first time snow had been seen in the city centre since the 1930s.

At the time, MetService head forecaster, Peter Kreft, told the New Zealand Press Association: "It's a once in many decades event. We are probably looking at something like - in terms of extent and severity - maybe 50 years," he said.

The snowfall was caused by Antarctic storms moving north across the country, where a large high pressure system had merged with three neighbouring low-pressure systems to create the unique conditions.

In contrast, the weather across the country today was mild, with Alexandra the coldest on a low of 6.3 while Hastings was a balming 17 degrees.

Most of the country was sunny, with just a few showers on the West Coast of the South Island.

Earlier in the month MetService said August was "pushing the bounds" of winter weather, with snow closing the Napier-Taupo highway and flooding in the Coromandel.

On Thursday morning Dunedin airport recorded its second coldest August temperature, dropping to -7.5C, with snow blanketing the city last week.

However it's yet to reach 2011 levels - meaning that event may remain truly a once-in-a-generation experience for now.

This week will be significantly more settled than the first half of August, WeatherWatch.co.nz says.

"People are asking us if the 10-day forecasts we have are correct with several days of dry weather, or even sunshine, in the forecast and we're saying 'yes, it's looking likely,' " said head weather analyst Philip Duncan.

"To give you idea of how much warmer the nation is, places like Dunedin which had low level snow within the past week will head for highs of 14 [degrees] for a time this week.

"Places inland, like Queenstown, which dropped to double negatives last week will this week drop to around -2 to +1 [degrees].

"We will still see frosts - but they won't be severe and they won't be in places we don't expect for mid-August."

Even though the weather will be warmer, it will be a great week for skiers and snowboarders too - and for farmers in the north and west looking for a break in the rain. Duncan said.

Some places have only had a couple of days without rain in the past 30 days.

This week's forcast:

Monday
Downpours for the West Coast and around Nelson later in the day. The Far North and upper Northland have the risk of late showers too. A few showers/downpours are expected to spillover into some eastern parts of the South Island too but most eastern areas will be dry. Plenty of cloudy areas around NZ on Monday.

Tuesday
High pressure grows further over the nation. There will be cloudy areas, especially in the north, and we can't rule out a few showers here and there, especially in the east of the North Island, like Hawke's Bay and Gisborne - and perhaps Northland - otherwise most places are dry on Tuesday.

Wednesday
High pressure properly takes control of New Zealand. A big high stretches from central New Zealand to inland Australia across the Tasman Sea. NZ is calm and settled and over 95 per cent dry. Highest shower risk in the north east corner (East Cape to northern Hawke's Bay) and the south west corner (Fiordland) but the day is mainly dry even in those regions.

Thursday
Dry and calm. Clouds mostly in coastal areas.

Friday
Showers on the lower West Coast as a front approaches and perhaps around East Cape/Northern Hawke's Bay as easterlies continue.

SOURCE: Weatherwatch

- NZ Herald

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