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Let it Snow!
by Maria Mazzaro

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Rare sight: Snow on the mountains overlooking Palermo in January 2009.Snow is not as unusual in Sicily as you may think. Mount Etna is usually snow-capped from December to April, and the higher peaks of the Nebrodi and Madonie ranges are usually dusted with snow for at least four or five weeks for a while from late December to early March. The Peloritan, Iblei and Sicanian ranges get less snow, sometimes for just a few days. But it's very rare for the low peaks around Palermo, such as Mount Pellegrino, to be covered with any snow at all.

This year was different. The first month of 2009 saw Sicily with more precipitation than in the entire twelve months of the previous year, and January alone nearly broke a record for rain and hail. It's been a decade since any snow actually fell in the city of Palermo. Hilltop Monreale and Altofonte, and the mountains immediately beyond these two towns, are the closest the white stuff usually gets to the capital. (The mountain in photo shown at left is near Monreale.)

This is good news, apart from the picturesque, slightly contradictory, novelty of snow on the palm trees. Like many places, Sicily has suffered the effects of climate change, with some very dry , hot years over the last fifteen. The snow on the mountains is a good indication that normality isn't far away, and it hasn't stopped the early almond blooms of February.

Historically, Sicily was cooler and wetter than it is today. During the harsh winter of 1062-1063 Roger Hauteville's invading Normans --including his wife Judith-- had to endure several feet of snow at Troina, in the Nebrodi Mountains of north-eastern Sicily, during what was the earliest Sicilian winter then on record. The snow began to fall in late October. This was especially uncomfortable as they were unprepared for the cold, and forced into an isolated part of the town citadel by angry Byzantines and Arabs. True, the Normans were a hardy lot, recently descended from Vikings, but the attack took them by surprise. They even had to eat some of their horses for food, but they eventually overpowered their adversaries, took the town back, and lived to conquer the rest of Sicily. (First, they hung the ringleaders of the Troinans who had iniziated the inconvenient siege, but that's another strory.)

Views from the Palermitan coast.With 199 millimeters of precipitation in January 2009, there had been more rain and snow in Palermo province since 1985. The 1973 all-time high for Sicily was 303 millimeters. It should be mentioned, however, that the areas around Etna, the Peloritans and Nebrodis get much more precipitation than north-western Sicily.

All this probably sounds a bit banal to those who live in colder climes. Here in Sicily the effects of the unseasonably cool weather are heightened by the lack, in most homes, of central heating.

In the past, Sicilian snow could be useful and was eagerly anticipated. It is believed that ice cream and sorbet were invented in Sicily, possibly as early as the Roman period but perhaps by the medieval Arabs. The theory, based on what scant descriptions exist, is that a relay of foot-runners brought snow down from the mountains to Catania (from Etna) and Palermo. This was flavored with honey (the Roman theory) or cane sugar (the Arab version) and fruits.

Let it snow!

About the Author: Maria Mazzaro writes about nature and environmental topics.

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© 2009 Maria Mazzaro