BEIRUT: Snowstorm Zina is wreaking havoc around Lebanon, delaying flights and closing off roads in the mountains, not to mention making life unbearable for the over a million Syrian refugees living in tents in the country’s north and northeast.
But scientists say the storm, though severe, is not unusual, though one with its severity likely only occurs every quarter century.
“People have forgotten because we had two to three years of quiet weather,” said Mona Chahine, director of the Lebanon-based Nicolas Chahine Observatory.
Storm Zina is a standard one in its inception, resulting from a “cold front,” essentially a bloc of cold air, descending from the north near Russia and colliding with a “jetstream,” a flow or column of air circling the Earth, that is filled with moisture.
“Very typical and not unusual at all,” said Nadim Farajalla, the faculty research director at the Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World program.
The program is part of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.
Chahine said the cold fronts emerging from Russia usually have high wind speeds, which are indicative of the strength of the storm. The overall strength is usually a combination of wind speed, drops in temperature, and heavy rain and snow.
The snowstorm sweeping the Levant region cut off roads across Lebanon Wednesday, including the international Beirut-Damascus Highway, isolating large areas in the north and east of the country, and leaving three people, Syrian refugees fleeing to Shebaa, dead.
Rough winds and heavy rains shuttered ports and briefly halted air traffic in Beirut, as the country braced for what is expected to be several more days of heavy winter weather.
The Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, which tracks such storms, said there were significant temperature drops Wednesday with torrential rain and snow above 500 meters altitude at night, along with strong winds.
The cold snap is expected to continue through Sunday.
Wind speeds reached up to 60 km/hr Tuesday, whereas wind gusts, which indicate sudden violent increases in wind speed, reached up to 84 km/hr, according to WindGuru, a website that tracks atmospheric data.
Wind speed is expected to die down in the coming days.
While the storm is not unusual, Farajalla said it was not possible to determine how often such violent storms recur because the data on rain, temperature, wind speed, humidity and other atmospheric measurements have not been collected over large periods of time accurately enough, though he estimates this current storm is likely a once in a quarter-century event.
“The return period for such storms is not really known,” he said. “My sense is it falls within the realm of once in 25 years – but that is not based on data, just anecdotal evidence.”
But he said climate change would likely lead to more extreme weather, with more intense storms, as well as more frequent occurrences of storms like Zina and severe droughts due to less rain during Lebanon’s rainy season.
“That is, we will get more such storms but then once they are over we will experience dry weather until the onset of another,” he said.
Chahine, whose center has been tracking Lebanese weather patterns for years, said this year’s storm was eclipsed by more powerful ones that occurred in the early 1980s and early 1990s.
“[It’s a] natural phenomenon 100 percent, and we have records in the past with stronger storms,” she said.
Chahine advised residents to stay at home if they had no pressing needs to drive during the storm, especially if they live in high-elevation areas with heavy snow. She cited the fact that the strong wind gusts had knocked over parts of unfinished buildings as well as trees. “If you don’t need anything, stay at home and cover your feet,” she said.