Your local TV weatherman has a lot to learn from Iraqis of the 10th century. Comparisons of historical accounts to modern weather events provide a means of judging the seriousness of today’s climatic stage.

Manuscripts written by Arabic scholars are being studied by Spanish scientists at the Universidad de Estremadura. Although the scripts focus on political, social or religious events from the 9th and 10th centuries (3rd and 4th in the Islamic calendar scheme), comments provide a snapshot of weather events the authors deemed extreme enough to mention.

Everyone talks about the weather, but what exactly is it? Wikipedia defines weather as the state of the atmosphere, to the degree that it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy. That about sums it up. Somehow weather fascinates us, occupies our everyday small talk and essentially controls our lives.

Can’t go out and play – it’s raining. The sun’s out – good time for a walk. It’s so hot – let’s go swimming. Historically, we felt its impact in whether we starved or not and where we lived. We pray for rain – the crops need water. Drought moved African tribesmen. In the 1930’s, Oklahomans were driven out West when the dust bowl hit.

Weather affects our finances. Destruction caused by Mother Nature or Acts of God aren’t covered by insurance policies. Lightening strikes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes all are noteworthy news, now and in ancient times.

Baghdad isn't always hot and dusty - there was even snow in 2008, an historical event

Baghdad isn’t always hot and dusty – there was even snow in 2008, an historical event which occured in the previous centuries

Prior to the Universidad study, most historical notations were gleaned from air force reports during WWII and 18th century ship’s logs. New research provides evidence of abnormal weather patterns that men centuries ago found worth recording. Lead author Dr Fernando Domínguez-Castro said they found documentation of "conditions which were rarely experienced in ancient Baghdad such as hailstorms, the freezing of rivers or even cases of snow." Snow in those ancient days are not part of the memories of today’s Iraqis whose only encounter in modern times with snow in Baghdad occurred in 2008. 

Manuscripts from writers such as al-Tabari, Ibn al-Athir (1233 AD) and al-Suyuti (1505 AD) revealed an increase of cold events in the first half of the 10th century. There was a significant temperature decline in July 920 AD, as well as snowfalls in 908, 944 and 1007. Domínguez-Castro said "We believe the drop in July 920 AD may have been linked to a great volcanic eruption but more work would be necessary to confirm this idea." Scientists have taken ice cores that suggest that average air temperatures worldwide dropped 3-5 degrees centigrade (5.4-9.0 degrees Fahrenheit) approximately 72,000 years ago Mount Toba on Sumatra erupted kicking out so much ash as to block the sun. Other volcanic winters have occurred throughout Earth’s history.

Modern Icelandic volcano spews lava and ash which can turn the sky grey

Modern Icelandic volcano spews lava and ash which can turn the sky grey. Credit: Reuters

The scientists think the ancient Arabic documents can help them reconstruct what the climate was like before meteorological instruments were available or formal records were kept. They believe Iraq had more significant weather-related events and more severe cold weather than it does today. Domínguez-Castro tells us, "The ability to reconstruct past climates provides us with useful historical context for understanding our own climate."

Meteorologists study weather, not necessarily meteors as their name would suggest. They use networks of weather stations and satellite images to map relatively predictable air masses as they circle the earth. They take into account geography, such as mountains or bodies of water which influence local weather. These specialists use barometers to measure air pressure, anemometers to measure wind speed, psychrometers to measure relative humidity, thermometers to measure the air temperature, and rain gauges to measure… the amount of rain.

However, we can learn a lot about the weather just by being observant, as were the writers of previous centuries who are helping us understand the relative significance of today’s weather events.