"It felt as if something great was happening, and we stayed outside even though it was freezing. It was worth it."
For the first time in more than 10 years and one of the only times in recorded history, snow has recently fallen in Iraq. Though this largely desert nation regularly registers some of planet Earth's most blisteringly hot temperatures, snowflakes blanketed many of its regions in February 2020 and left locals with a sight unlike almost anything they'd ever seen before.
An estimated snowfall of between one to two inches occurred on Feb. 11 while temperatures dropped to about 27 degrees Fahrenheit — a chill noticeably below Iraq's average winter lows between about 35 and 42 degrees.
Despite the extraordinary cold, the rare sight of snowfall delightfully surprised many residents, especially those too young to remember the last time such a storm happened.
"We couldn't believe it. My kids pressed their faces against the windows and just stared at it," Baghdad resident Mustafa Ali, who is a father of three, told The Washington Post. "They said it was like magic."
This sort of magic is particularly welcome in a country that has long been rocked by political strife and violence. In recent weeks especially, ongoing protests have all but taken over the streets of the country's largest cities as demonstrators have called for increased job opportunities, basic government-provided services, and an end to foreign influence in domestic affairs by nations like the U.S.
But the sight of the crisp white blanket of snow somewhat softened tensions, if only for a moment.
Protesters who'd gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square took time to enjoy the rare snow, building snow figures and playfully throwing snowballs at one another. Some did manage to keep their political goals in mind by drawing anti-government signs in the snow.
One young protester, a 24-year-old named Ghaith Ali, nevertheless said the snowy scenes looked like they came straight out of a movie.
"It felt as if something great was happening, and we stayed outside even though it was freezing," Ali said. "It was worth it."
The Sparse History Of Snow In Iraq
Although snowfall in a country where the hottest temperatures have reached 129 degrees Fahrenheit is rare, it's not totally unheard of — but you have to go back quite a while to find other instances. In fact, researchers discovered evidence of snowfall in Iraq dating back to 1,000 years ago.
According to manuscripts originating from 9th- and 10th-century Baghdad, there were at least 14 instances of cold weather and snow in the area at the time. Two mentions even described a full year of cold weather.
In one instance, it was so cold in Baghdad that the rivers froze over. It's unclear just how cold it was at the time but an entry dated Dec. 23, 908 described "four fingers of snow accumulated on the roofs." Another entry dated Nov. 25, 1007, said the level of snow had reached between 30 and 50 inches.
Since these millennium-old storms, it has snowed in Baghdad a handful of times. But the last time the capital city saw snow in recent history was more than a decade ago, in 2008.
The Historic 2020 Snowstorm
Besides Baghdad, the 2020 snowfall in Iraq hit many parts of the country. Up north in Iraq's mountain region where snow is more common, in and around the city of Mosul, blankets of snow covered the rubble left behind by the fight against ISIS.
South of Baghdad, the city of Karbala was also covered in a layer of snow. The golden-domed structures of its Abbas and Imam Hussein mausoleums under the white blanket of snowflakes were a sight to behold.
The 2020 snowfall is only the second time that the phenomenon has happened in the last 100 years. So, why is Iraq experiencing snow again?
According to meteorologist Jason Nicholls, the snowfall likely occurred because the cold air being blown toward the Middle East from western Russia is making its way around the world in the upper atmosphere. Now, Iraq is feeling the consequences of these changing weather patterns.
Since 2018, the country has been hit by a myriad of extreme weather events — whether hot or cold. Iraq suffered from scorching temperatures in 2019 that killed crops and triggered wildfires.
The country also experienced a severe water shortage which in turn spurred a health crisis in its southern and central regions.
So although the beautiful scenes of snow on the typically sun-baked streets of Iraq's cities were a remarkable sight, this also signals the devastating realities of climate change in the area.
Though the snow may signal environmental calamity to come, many locals enjoyed the temporary respite from the political tumult plaguing the country at present.
"A few minutes ago, I was covered with snowflakes. In my hair, on my shoulders," said Hassan Zahar of Baghdad, the city likely hit hardest by the recent wave of unrest. "I invite all the people to enjoy peace, because the snow means peace."
Next, learn about the snowstorm that turned Arizona's desert into a winter wonderland. Then, see the climate change-fueled flooding in Venice that brought the city to its knees.