Fire and ice -- around the globe, a week of weather extremes

Snow in Jerusalem. A new color of hot on Australian climate maps.

Has the world's weather gone crazy?

In the same week that the National Climatic Data Center declared 2012 North America's hottest year on record, inclement conditions have buffeted countries in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Though separated by thousands of miles, the extreme weather events once again have people questioning the climate connection. Scientists saying the phenomena fit within a wider pattern of extremes that will only become more common as climate change adds additional kinetic energy, in the form of heat, to the world's weather systems.

Snow blanketed much of the Levant last week as the tail of a freezing storm from southwestern Russia descended on the region, pelting Israel, Lebanon and Jordan with sleet that turned to snow Wednesday night.

"A few days before the snow it was raining like crazy -- so much so that some houses even sank," Fairuz Abadi, a resident of Jerusalem, said via email. Despite the hardship, people were happy to see the uncommon sight of snow, she said. Schools and many businesses were shut down Thursday, and Israelis took advantage of the unscheduled holiday, venturing out to build snowmen as conditions quieted toward evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his country's emergency services Thursday and urged citizens not to take unnecessary risks while the cold weather persisted.

"We have waited many years for this rain. I hope that they will be blessed rains and not claim victims," he said. "I thank citizens for their patience. They understand that after the traffic jams are over, we will have full reservoirs and need this water."

The Levant is water-rich compared to other regions of the Middle East, and precipitation levels have held fairly constant over the past decade. However, as a report by the Arab Environmental Forum notes, that precipitation has been falling during a progressively narrower window of time. That has meant more intense rainfall, greater chances of flooding and more moisture lost to runoff.


Indeed, the rains the preceded the snowfall flooded coastal towns in Lebanon, causing damage and resulting in at least two fatalities. Powerful winds blowing at more than 60 mph downed trees and ripped up crops along the course of the country's southern highway.

An increase in extreme weather conditions due to climate change could be as harmful to the region as a drop in precipitation, said Fadi Karam, head of the department of irrigation and agro-meteorology at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute. Increased runoff and soil erosion, coupled with a decline in groundwater recharge, are pushing the region toward desertification, he said.

The storms over the Middle East are part of a larger band of cold that has settled over much of the Northern Hemisphere, bringing heavy snows and plummeting temperatures to Norway, Sweden and much of Russia. Russia is enduring its coldest winter since 1938, with temperatures in the east dropping below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

High temperatures Down Under

That's a far cry from the situation in Australia, where temperatures have climbed above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and are expected to edge even higher today and tomorrow. The country has found itself in the grip of its worst heat wave in decades, driving a deadly spate of brush fires and forcing meteorologists to add a new color, violet, to their climate maps to signify temperatures over 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heat wave has been intensifying since New Year's Day, the product of a high-pressure system from a delayed hurricane.

Crews are battling hundreds of brush fires in New South Wales, where the hazard level has been raised to "catastrophic."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that there is a 90 percent probability that climate change will contribute to more intense and longer-lasting heat waves in the future. Because the energy in weather systems is primarily derived from heat, that will likely mean more severe storms and forceful winds, the IPCC predicts.

"Whilst you would not put any one event down to climate change, we do know over time that as a result of climate change, we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions," said Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speaking to reporters last week about the ongoing heat wave.

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