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Earth Sense: Snow is as iffy in North Ga. as it is in Bethlehem

POSTED: December 22, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Pretty Christmas cards with snow-laden New England landscapes are arriving. The desert town of Bethlehem, birthplace of Christ 2,000 years ago, is located 6 miles south of Jerusalem in today’s West Bank in the Palestinian Territory. It probably didn’t look like Bangor, Maine, back then, and it doesn’t now.

But it could have been snowing there. Currently, Bethlehem has lows around 32 and highs just above 50 degrees. Although precipitation is much more sparse there than in the U.S. South, that part of the Middle East just experienced a massive snowstorm last week, getting motorists stranded and causing 13,000 power outages according to Israel Electric Corporation.

Desert climates like the one in the West Bank can show great temperature drops between day and nighttime, and a flow of moist air from the Mediterranean will produce snow if the temperatures are low enough.

Here in Georgia, the town of Bethlehem, 27 miles south of Gainesville, is more likely to see mild temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees during the day, and nightly lows in the 40s around Christmas time.

The year 2010 brought a “white Christmas” to most of North Georgia. Athens received 2 inches of snow on Dec. 25 that year. Gainesville got somewhat less. But for some reason, Greene County, south of Athens-Clarke County, was a winter wonderland in 2010. Noaa.gov reported 10 inches in the town of Siloam on Dec. 26, and another 4 inches the following day.

December snows are as capricious here as they are in Israel and Palestine. North Georgia is located in the “iffy” zone where the jet stream sometimes brings winter storms in rapid succession, and at other times it stays just far enough north to keep the mercury in the 40s. When this high altitude river of air makes a steep bend to the south, we can have lows well below freezing but no snow.

The most common situation where we can expect a white Christmas is the passage of a cold front, steered into North Georgia by the jet stream, followed by another front of the same type within a few days. The first one cools the area to the freezing mark, and the second one draws moisture from the Gulf that will then fall as snow.

Since it happens only every few years on average, we may just have to wait for a white Christmas to return in a future year.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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