Once we wore coats and scarves during Hanukkah, but these days people are going to the beach in Tel Aviv’

 פרידה מהחורף
The beach in Tel Aviv, this month. “In Israel, we will probably be able to overcome a large part of the problems that will arise, but this does not reduce the severity of the crisis in the rest of the world,” Prof. Rosenfeld says.Credit: Hadas Parush

Netta Ahituv Dec 23, 2022

“Tel Aviv – We Don’t Do Winter” is the playful title of three catchy videos the municipality hopes will encourage tourists from Europe to visit the city. The campaign is exciting, but the situation is actually a tragedy. While Europeans begin to freeze, in Israel summer weather continues into October and November, and in recent years, as at present, also deep into December. It seems as if the climate crisis is sending out signals: If in Europe they discovered this year that rivers can simply dry up, and many Asian countries are facing massive floods – in Israel we are being forced to say goodbye to winter as we knew it.

So although the calendar says it’s winter holiday season, we’ve yet to have a single, seriously cold day. We remember how once, at this time of year, we wore coats, and sometimes also scarves and boots – but today we are wading in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. A person walking down the street in late December, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, can’t help but wonder: Is it me, or has the situation really changed?

Well, the situation has indeed changed, and this is also what scientific research shows. It used to be colder here during Hanukkah, which typically falls sometime during December, depending on the year. A study published recently by atmospheric scientist Shira Raveh-Rubin, principal investigator of the Dynamical Meteorology Group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, reveals that in the past 15 years, “islands” of summery weather began to appear in Israel during the winter. In December 2020, there were even a few days when temperatures reached 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

A different report, compiled by Israeli researchers at various institutions, identified a clear warming trend throughout the country during the winter months, which is felt more strongly along the coastal plain, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The researchers found that minimum daytime temperatures have increased more than maximum temperatures have. Winter is less like winter.

Prof. Colin Price, head of Tel Aviv University’s climate initiative, says that, “These are phenomena that we expected to take place only in a few more years, but they are happening now. Unfortunately, the situation is deteriorating much faster than expected. The scientists’ assessment was not dramatic enough, and because of the underestimation everyone thought there was more time to act than we actually have. But today it is clear that global warming is happening here and now. I wish we were wrong, in the other direction – simply overreacting.”

What is actually happening meteorologically that is causing the extinction of winter in these parts? Israel’s weather is affected by cold air currents that come in from Europe, passing over the Mediterranean Sea. When the North Pole becomes warmer than in the past, the winds coming from it also become warmer. The cold remains in the northern reaches of Earth, and winter arrives later in other areas. At the same time, another phenomenon is occurring: The amount of rain that falls during the year remains more or less the same, but it falls during fewer days – so when it does rain along the coast, for example, it rains heavily, increasing the risk of flooding and of flash floods.

“It’s a Mediterranean monsoon,” says Dr. Amir Givati of TAU’s environmental studies department. “Instead of an average of 570 millimeters (24 inches) of rain falling in [Greater Tel Aviv] during 45 rainy days that are spread out over half a year, from October to March, today there are 10 percent fewer days of rain and it occurs in sharp surges. In the past we typically measured 10 millimeters of rain in 10 minutes, today we measure 15-20 millimeters during that same amount of time. The amount of precipitation per minute has nearly doubled. Israel’s drainage systems are not prepared for this, so we are seeing flooding.”

So, the season of winter is getting shorter, it’s warmer in November and December here, there are fewer and fewer rainy days. And we are only in 2022, with many dire consequences of the climate crisis looming ahead. What, then, does the future hold for us?

At the beach in Tel Aviv. In the Mediterranean Sea, many species of fish and sea mammals have gone extinct.
At the beach in Tel Aviv. In the Mediterranean Sea, many species of fish and sea mammals have gone extinct. Credit: Hadas Parush

“We’ve gone about one-third of the way” to the worst-case climate scenario, says Daniel Rosenfeld, an expert in atmospheric sciences and climate engineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Winters will be increasingly shorter, and most winter days will feel more like fall or spring. There will be a decrease in the number of rainy days in Israel, but with a high likelihood of powerful storms. We will see more flooding, due to global warming and because the runoff has nowhere to go due to urbanization. There will be a decline in the amount of water available to us, due to a drop in the amount of rain and increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures. There will be a process of drying up, which means the Earth will become more yellow and less green. And as for summer, by the end of the century a normal summer day will be like what today we call a sharav: muggy along the coast and hot and dry in the mountains.”

Yet despite everything, Prof. Rosenfeld finds reasons for optimism. “In Israel, we will probably be able to overcome a large part of the problems that will arise, through desalination of seawater, irrigation, air-conditioning and the protection against rising sea levels provided by the coastal cliffs. Israelis can certainly feel a little better about this. However, this does not reduce the severity of the crisis in the rest of the world.”

Everyone loses

One result of the climatic changes during Israel’s winters is the gradual, ongoing decline of agriculture. Some crops, such as wheat and potatoes, are dependent on rain as a source of water since they are usually not irrigated, while others need cold nights in order to ripen.


The assessment was not dramatic enough, and because of that everyone thought there was more time to act than we actually have. But today it is clear that global warming is happening here and now. I wish we were wrong.

Prof. Colin Price

We meet up with Bat-Ami Sorek, one of Israel’s first and most respected organic farmers and the founder of the community-supported agriculture farm Chubeza, as she drafts her weekly Hebrew-English newsletter. (The model of community-supported agriculture, aka CSA, involves an arrangement whereby consumers subscribe to/purchase the harvest of a particular farm or farm collective.) Sorek sighs in despair over the fact that it didn’t rain this past week either and she has to mention that in her bulletin, since it affects the produce her consumer-members receive. “It’s really depressing to look at the weather forecast,” she says. “Who would have thought that sunshine and blue skies would be so upsetting?”

The absence of real winter weather affects agriculture on several levels, Sorek explains: “The first is that the rain is crazy – either there’s no rain at all, or there’s a lot all at once, and it drives the crops crazy. We use drip irrigation so the gap in the rains isn’t ruinous, but it is definitely expensive – our economic calculations are usually based on the fact that in winter we don’t have to water crops. What’s more, you can’t compare the taste of vegetables after a good rain compared to after watering. It’s a different world. The vegetables survive, but they’re not happy. All the agricultural technology we’ve developed allows us to get by, but there’s no doubt that vegetables don’t thrive that way.”

Sorek describes the plight of a neighboring wheat farmer: This year his wheat germinated as expected during rains that fell a few weeks ago, but the recent dry spell has made it all wither.

There is also the matter of temperature: Winter fruit, for example, needs cold nights to develop. “During the recent warm winters, a lot of the fruit didn’t ripen because temperatures just didn’t drop enough,” Sorek says. “Two years ago, there were no cold snaps and no fruit. They simply didn’t grow.”

“It’s depressing to look at the weather forecast,” organic farmer Sorek says. “Who would have thought that sunshine and blue skies would be so upsetting.”
“It’s depressing to look at the weather forecast,” organic farmer Sorek says. “Who would have thought that sunshine and blue skies would be so upsetting.” Credit: Hadas Parush

A document published in 2019 by the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, titled “Preparing Israeli Agriculture for Climate Change,” warned that preparations must begin immediately to contend with “changes in the quantity and quality of produce, increased water consumption in the face of a decline in availability, accelerated soil depletion processes, fluctuations in sowing and planting dates, and an increase in the scope and intensity of pests and diseases.”

For her part, Sorek says she’s already confronting all these challenges in her fields: “Another aspect in which farming has been affected by the absence of winter, and the one that scares us the most – relates to pest management. Our winter crops are suddenly affected by a new fungus, or we find ourselves dealing in December with a leaf disease that’s not typical for the season. Or swarms suddenly arrive from the south. This year a pest that was new to us hit our corn fields. There’s a sense that everything’s gone crazy. It’s not the insects’ fault: Both the harmful and the beneficial ones are just trying to survive in this climatic insanity, that’s why they move from place to place.”

The “insanity” plaguing agriculture also has direct and indirect effects on the economy. Among other things, it leads to an increase in farmers’ expenses, which leads to price hikes in fruits and vegetables. The consequences are also evident in the situation at KANAT – The Insurance Fund for Natural Risks in Agriculture, a 50:50 partnership between the Israeli government and farmers’ marketing boards and organizations. The claims the fund is forced to pay out because of loss of income due to climate change are growing every year. Last year, for example, it paid a total of 130 million shekels ($38 million) to about 4,200 farmers who submitted claims due to the exceptionally warm winter – 30 percent more than for the winter of 2020. The payouts are less than what the farmers would have earned had the winter been colder and the yields normal, but in this story, everybody loses.

Nevertheless, as in the case of Prof. Rosenfeld being somewhat hopeful regarding Israel’s ability to handle the climate crisis, the Agriculture Ministry’s 2019 document also has some bright spots: “Looking at the past decades, we are witnessing an improvement in agricultural productivity without a change in the amount of water used for agriculture – that is, [there is] an increase in productivity per cubic meter of water.”

It’s a Mediterranean monsoon. In the past we measured 10 mm. of rain in 10 minutes, today we measure 15-20 mm. during that same time. The amount of precipitation per minute has nearly doubled.

Dr. Amir Givati

Indeed, Israel has become a household name when it comes achieving agricultural efficiency with minimal water. In fact, 70 percent of the country’s crops today are irrigated with treated wastewater, the highest rate in the world. Drip irrigation, an Israeli invention that inspires pride, also increases water-use efficiency, by being directed into the roots of plants. In short, we are able to overcome a water shortage despite global warming. But what about everyone else?

Geographer Avner Gross, a senior lecturer at the School of Sustainability and Climate Change at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, warns that we should be more concerned about the effects of dry winters on neighboring countries.

“Israel is a developed country that is able to cope with hot winters through desalination and food imports,” Dr. Gross says. “But that’s not the case for those around us. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt are countries with more acute water problems than Israel, and they have almost no access to desalinated water. In addition, they are more sensitive to damage to their crop yields. Therefore, the decrease in the amount of rainfall in the eastern Mediterranean region could lead to political destabilization in these places – and directly affect us. The past few winters show that this region is already drying up. We anticipated this trend, but it may be occurring ahead of its time.

“A stable climate is the basis for human prosperity,” Gross continues. “To draw an analogy with the human body, we can say that global warming is less a sudden heart attack and more a prolonged deterioration in one’s health, like cancer that spreads throughout the body and causes any underlying health problem to become much more serious. A global pandemic like the coronavirus, or a war in Europe, will be much more extreme in another decade, because they will occur on a more unstable, cracked platform. The climate crisis is a force multiplier of everything that happens in the world.”

People on bicycles in Tel Aviv
Credit: Hadas Parush

‘On the edge’

With all due respect to human beings, we are not alone in the world, and many other living creatures are also desperate for a bit of wintery weather. In the chapter dealing with climate change and its impact on biodiversity, the 2022 “State of Nature” report by Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program states that “due to climate change, significant changes are also taking place in species distributions, physical traits of animals and activity patterns of plants and animals. Israel serves as the edge of the global distribution of many species. Populations on the edge of their distribution tend to be particularly vulnerable to changes in their environment, including climate change.”

The report goes on to say that the decrease in the amount of rain combined with the increase in the mean winter temperature in Israel are expected to have a significant impact on freshwater aquatic habitats, including streams, springs and winter ponds. In the Mediterranean Sea, which has warmed up by approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last 40 years – significantly above the mean global rate of ocean warming – many species of fish and sea mammals have gone extinct and many more are on the verge. “Due to warming of the Mediterranean Sea, about one-fifth of the fish species endemic to this sea are expected to go extinct by the end of the 21st century,” the report’s authors warn.

On the other hand, there are creatures that thrive during warmer winters, among them mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants and mice. More hot days every year inevitably means more of these annoying pests.

Since the right wing parties’ triumph in the November 1 election, liberals in Israel have often been likened to the apocryphal frog, that stays in a slowly heated pot of water until it is eventually cooked to death. That may be a well-known myth, but it reflects our reality in the simplest sense: The pot in which we live just gets hotter and hotter. Until now, our steamy summers have received most of the attention – but winter has also begun to fade away.