Behold the Sahara. At 3,500,000 square miles, it’s the largest hot desert in the world. In its hottest month, its searing temperatures will average up to 104° F. That’s the highest recorded average in the world. And at its most fierce, the mercury once rose to an average high of 116.6° F, a world record. On super-rare occasions, however, the mercury can plummet – and when it does, the strangest thing happens.
Indeed, just before Christmas 2016 the unthinkable happened. In fact, it was the first time this phenomenon had been seen in 37 years. Not quite a once-in-a-lifetime experience, perhaps, but rare enough for photographer Karim Bouchetata – who lives there – to snatch his camera and document what was going on.
Bouchetata lives in Ain Sefra, an Algerian town some 3,300 feet above sea level that’s sandwiched between the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains. And he knew that his pictures were going to be remarkable.
Indeed, after he posted them on Facebook they were viewed and shared around the world. Because aside from Bouchetata’s photographic skill, what they depicted was astounding. The pictures showed snow – yes, the cold, white stuff – covering the sands of one the hottest places on Earth.
The snow began falling just a week before Christmas, on December 19, 2016. And it topped the red dunes with a brilliant coat of icing for the first time since 1979.
But the entire spectacle was fleeting. Indeed, it was gone in just one day, melted by the return of the heat. Then, the desert reverted to its familiar rusty red hue once more.
“Everyone was stunned to see snow falling in the desert; it is such a rare occurrence,” The Telegraph reported Bouchetata as saying in December 2016. “It looked amazing as the snow settled on the sand and made a great set of photos. The snow stayed for about a day and has now melted away.”
Not to be outdone by Bouchetata, NASA’s Earth Observatory was on hand to record the unusual event from space. And it took some extraordinary pictures of what was going on using the Enhanced Thematic Mapper on its Landsat 7 orbiter, together with a visible-light camera.
NASA boffins then switched their equipment to show “false color” images, which utilized short-wave cameras operating within infrared to red-light ranges. And these demonstrate the snow spread, which shows up in turquoise.
Next, NASA produced a four-year comparison of December snowfall in the area. It has, in fact, had the desert under observation since 2013 with its Terra and Aqua satellites. While minuscule smatterings of snow appear on two other pictures, the quartet of shots shows how unusual 2016’s phenomenon was.
Of course, it’s not at all unusual to see freezing weather in the desert. The atmosphere is thinner and, as a result, the nights in particular get very chilly. What limits the outlook for a snowball fight, though, is the lack of precipitation.
Indeed, the desert area gets between zero and half a millimeter of rainfall per year on average. So there is not going to be much thrilling skiing potential there, then.
In fact, the landscape in Bouchetata’s town looks surprisingly lush and verdant, given the dearth of water all around. This could, indeed, be a winter’s scene from the U.S. or England… surely it isn’t downtown Algeria?
Amazingly, it wasn’t just the Sahara that almost got a white Christmas. Indeed, a few hundred miles further east, in Saudi Arabia, the deserts were also dusted with snow. And the conditions even caused road crashes among drivers not familiar with the conditions.
The snows came at the end of November – just before the Sahara, to the west, was hit. Saudis at first embraced them with joy, and many enjoyed the rare pleasure of building snowmen. Meanwhile, skating sheikhs were even seen on the roads.
This was all highly unusual. Temperatures in the region tend to sit at around 68º F, even in the run-up to Christmas. Locals, then, could be forgiven for wanting to celebrate such an unusual event.
Indeed, in winter 2016-17 temperatures plunged right down to freezing point, with 32º F recorded in northwest and central areas of Saudi Arabia. It was indeed strange, but the novelty soon wore off.
Temperatures in Al-Jawf, a region in northern Saudi Arabia, sank to 26.6° F. In Al-Quryat, meanwhile – a city not far from the border with Jordan – the mercury fell to 30.2°F. But then, somewhat sadly, the snow was washed away by sudden rain.
The rain and melting snow caused massive floods across the area and, tragically, at least seven people lost their lives. The dead included two men who were struck by lightning in Al Qunfudah, a city on the coast of the Red Sea.
So far there has been no suggestion of a link between the two desert snow flurries, but the incidence of snow across regions normally so warm does highlight that the Earth’s climate is changing. However, regardless of the causes, the pictures certainly make for some surreal and beautiful viewing.