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A field experiment – the Snow Horizontal Array Turbulence Study (SnoHATS) – has been performed over an extensive glacier in Switzerland in order to study small-scale turbulence in the stable atmospheric surface layer, and to investigate the role, dynamics and modelling of the subgrid scales (SGSs) in the context of large-eddy simulations. The a priori data analysis aims at comparing the role and behaviour of the SGSs under stable conditions with previous studies under neutral or unstable conditions. It is found that the SGSs in a stable surface layer remain an important sink of temperature variance and turbulent kinetic energy from the resolved scales and carry a significant portion of the fluxes when the filter scale is larger than the distance to the wall. The fraction of SGS fluxes (out of the total fluxes) is found to be independent of stability. In addition, the stress–strain alignment is similar to the alignment under neutral and unstable conditions. The model coefficients vary considerably with stability but in a manner consistent with previous findings, which also showed that scale-dependent dynamic models can capture this variation. Furthermore, the variation of the coefficients for both momentum and heat SGS fluxes can be shown to be better explained by stability parameters based on vertical gradients, rather than vertical fluxes. These findings suggest that small-scale turbulence dynamics and SGS modelling under stable conditions share many important properties with neutral and convective conditions, and that a unified approach is thus possible. This paper concludes with a discussion of some other challenges for stable boundary-layer simulations that are not encountered in the neutral or unstable cases.