Snowfalls are becoming Jerusalem’s new weather normal

Snow in Jerusalem is so rare that only a few residents braved the cold to walk the white streets, 7 January 2015.
Snow in Jerusalem is so rare that only a few residents braved the cold to walk the white streets, 7 January 2015. TNS

When snow blanketed Jerusalem last year, Mohammed Kiswani lost electricity for five days and resorted to heating his home with a charcoal grill, which he also used to cook the raw chicken from his powerless fridge. This year he – and Israeli authorities – were better prepared.

“I bought a gas heater. I bought extra gas. This year, I’m ready,” said Kiswani, 32, a cabdriver from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat.

On Wednesday, a steady blanket of snow covered Jerusalem, the third year in a row for an unusually heavy snowfall. But unlike previous years, plows and salt spreaders plied the city’s roads, buses fitted with chains continued to run and the two main highways linking the city with Tel Aviv on the coast were closed – preventing the previous years’ danger of stranded motorists.

Ozel Vatik, spokesman for the Citypass company, which runs Jerusalem’s light rail, said his organization had acquired snow blowers and a rubber-tipped plow to aid in clearing the tracks.

Authorities’ decision to take the prospect of snow seriously is evidence of what climatologists say is a new normal in the Holy Land: drier summers and winter blizzards.

“We are heading into the first phase of the storm,” Mayor Nir Barkat said at a briefing Wednesday morning. He was in an underground situation room, where the city’s 400 surveillance cameras, usually trained on flashpoints of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, were being used to identify fallen trees and other storm-related problems.

“Tomorrow we’ll have a break, and we understand we are heading for a second round, in which on Saturday the temperatures will go below freezing,” Barkat said. “It’s not an easy challenge.”

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said he thought the city was prepared this year. “We have given our all so that we don’t, God forbid, repeat the events that weren’t dealt with, or blackouts,” he said.

Amir Givati, the head of the surface water department at the Israel Water Authority, said the changing snow patterns were a result of a rise of nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit in Israel’s average temperature over the past 30 years. He said the winter of 2013-14 had been a clear sign of the shift.

“On the one hand, we got a long drought period last year when we didn’t get any precipitation for months in northern Israel and Jerusalem,” he said. “And on the other hand, last year we had this huge snowstorm that occurred in December. . . . The drought was the heaviest for a century. And the snow was also a record for a century.”

The snowstorm in late 2013 dumped more than 2 feet of snow on the capital, where snowfall historically averages just 4 inches each winter. The roads were covered in ice. Thousands of drivers were stranded overnight on a highway linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Conditions were so bad that the train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem ran on Saturday, in violation of the national policy of not running public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath.

Wednesday’s snowfall was 4 inches, though a second round of snow might hit the city in several days. Meteorologist Barry Lynn of the Hebrew University said that just as odd were the below-freezing temperatures forecast for the coming weekend, another weather abnormality in Jerusalem, where January temperatures for the past 30 years have averaged 44 to 55 degrees daily.

On Wednesday, Jerusalemites mostly stayed home as stately palm trees outside City Hall were covered in an incongruous film of white. Schools and universities canceled classes, and Barkat urged residents to avoid driving. Few people visited supermarkets, as most had stocked up Tuesday night.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, Tareq Taha roasted chestnuts on a space heater glowing bright orange. He stood in front of 600 pounds of chestnuts in jute sacks that he’d hoped to sell; few people walked through the cobblestone streets to buy them, however.

A few steps farther into the city, barber Ramzi Abu Gazaleh and his brother took a break from shaving a trickle of customers to eat shaariyeh, hot sugary noodles they’d cooked over a gas stove.

In the northern part of the city, Andy Sommer said she’d stayed home from her job at a women’s shelter. Last year she was stranded in her car in the snow for three hours. Now she wondered whether she’d be able to cook a Friday night dinner.

“Yesterday the supermarkets were crazy,” Sommer said. “People were stocking up as if they would be stuck in their houses for three weeks. I just got what I needed for two or three days, and now I’m looking in the fridge and wondering if I should have been more concerned.”