It’s a winter wonderland in parts of the Mediterranean—a rare sight in a region of the world known for its azure seas and beautiful beaches. A major snowstorm blanketed parts of Greece and Turkey this weekend, causing havoc in an area not accustomed to winter weather.
The snow started to fall in Greece on Sunday before moving west and intensifying on Monday. The Aegean Islands and Turkey were also covered by the end of the storm. This storm, named “Elpida,” the Greek word for “hope,” brought just over 3 inches (8 centimeters) in Athens, while the mountains of Turkey saw snowfall measured in feet. Parts of Athens, including historic sites like the Acropolis, were blanketed in a layer of white; some webcams showed total whiteout conditions as the storm moved through.
While snow isn’t totally out of the ordinary in the mountainous areas surrounding Athens, it’s rarer in the capital city itself. (To say nothing of the Mediterranean islands.) Central Athens experienced similarly heavy snowfall last February, which marked the city’s worst snowstorm since 2008; that storm cut power for residents and left three dead. The city also saw snow in 2019, but the white stuff remains a rarity; there have been just six snowfalls since 2000.
The lack of regular snowstorms means even 3 inches of snow threw everyday life into a tailspin in Greek capital and elsewhere. The snow caused disastrous conditions on highways and roads; the army and the fire department were tasked Monday with rescuing hundreds of drivers in Athens, some of whom had been stuck in their cars for hours. As of Tuesday morning, 1,200 cars were still stuck on the main road of the city, authorities said. (Sounds familiar.)
“The situation is hopeless,” Spiros Kandaras, who was in his car for a full 24 hours, told Reuters. “They should be ashamed of this mess.”
Most public transportation in Athens was also out of commission thanks to the storm. The power was out for hours, while some passengers on a train were “lightly injured” after a weather-related accident.
The storm brought some wild weather sights along with it. One webcam recorded footage of a waterspout over the Mediterranean Sea. The spout briefly touched down on land, sending snow flying into the air. Residents in Athens also recorded footage of thundersnow on Monday. That’s a relatively rare phenomenon anywhere due because the atmospheric conditions required for snow and lightning are generally incompatible.
The Greek government declared a holiday on Tuesday for areas affected by the snow to give residents a breather as they dug out from the storm.
“We ask citizens to avoid leaving their homes. It will be a difficult night,” Climate Change and Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides told reporters. “The height of the snow is unprecedented in some areas.”
There was similar chaos in Turkey, where public transportation was put on hold in the capital city of Istanbul. The government also shut down flights in and out of the city Monday; some flights resumed as of Tuesday, but many were still on hold, stranding passengers at the airport. Government authorities said that more than 4,600 people were still stranded due to snowy roads and other weather-related conditions, while around 6,700 had been taken to temporary shelters.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu told Reuters that the city center saw between 4 and 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) of snow; just under 10 inches (25 centimeters) was recorded in the suburbs. The storm coincided with a winter break for most schools in Turkey, but public institutions and shopping malls closed early Monday.
Even as it caused havoc, some officials expressed hope that the snow could help alleviate dry conditions in Turkey. Parts of Turkey were hit hard by devastating wildfires and sky-high temperatures this summer, while drought impacted local lakes and wildlife.
“Istanbul is dependent on the snow’s blessing,” Imamoglu told Reuters. “If it doesn’t experience every season as it is intended, different risks await.”