Irans week-long blizzard that killed thousands

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In 1971, Iran experienced one of its worst droughts on record, one that lasted 1,460 days. On February 3, 1972, that drought came to an end as moisture gathered over the Middle Eastern nation. Except that moisture was not the rain the country so needed, but snow — snow that would blanket the entire country and mark the beginning of the deadliest blizzard in history.

For seven days, a bitter snowstorm unleashed on the country, and predictions show that all 1,636,000 sq km (631,000 sq mi) of Iran’s landmass was buried, including some of Tehran’s most famous monuments, and tragically its citizens.

Thousands of Iranians opted to stay indoors as the blizzard wreaked havoc outside, but for many, the weather turned their homes into freezing death traps.

Temperatures plunged so low that many who died at the hands of the storm were not found until the snow had thawed away, unearthing the true extent of the weather’s destruction.

In some areas, particularly in the southern regions of Iran, snow as deep as eight metres (26ft) was recorded, with the rest of the country stuck with snow at least three metres (10ft) high.

That deadly week 51 years ago took with it 4,000 people.

Despite the country regularly recording record-breaking temperatures — like in 2005 when a temperature of 70.7°C (159°F) was read in the Lut desert— snow and blizzards are not uncommon.

Iran is made up of many mountain ranges that are decorated with snow, including the Zagros and Alborz. The chilly conditions there counter the subtropical temperatures of the Caspian coastal plain.

It means that many in western Iran, where the Zagros Mountains lay, are used to harsh winters. But their countrymen and women in the south, living alongside the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf were not. Their lifestyles lend themselves to mild winters and hot summers.

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One of the worst-hit regions, to the surprise of many, was Ardakan in central Iran, Yazd Province’s second city.

Home to approximately 75,000 people, and known as the birthplace of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, Ardakan is perhaps the aridest place in Iran, at the centre of some of the country’s biggest deserts. And so the sight of snow was essentially unheard of. 

Elsewhere, in the villages of Kakkan or Kumar, no survivors were found. Over in  Sheklab, on the Turkish border, 100 villagers were buried alive.

The New York Times, in a report dated February 10, 1972, described how the week-long blizzard quite literally “dumped” snow on Iran, placing the number of missing people at around 6,000.

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Among those that were hit included “an American woman college student and two men companions who went mountain climbing near Teheran”. A five-man team aiming to locate survivors “also vanished”.

The archive report continued: “The storm laid a deep blanket of snow across northwestern, central and southern Iran. The Government began taking precautions for possible heavy flooding that could come with a thaw.

“In southern Iran, at least 4,000 villagers from the Ardekan area are reported trapped or buried beneath 26 feet of snow.”

Associated Press noted that some rescue workers trying to locate people in Sheklab “dug for two days straight”, but could only locate 18 of the 100 people who lived in the village, who were all dead.

Less than 24 hours after the blizzard ended on February 10, another started up, forcing any rescue operations that had been set up temporarily abandoned.

The report added: “Army helicopters left two tons of bread and dates scattered over the snowdrifts, in hopes that some people could tunnel their way to the surface, but many never did.”

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ranked the Seventies blizzard as the worst in history, but sadly for Iran, it is not the most devastating natural disaster in its history.

In 1954, a great flood saw 10,000 people die, making it humanity’s worst natural disaster.

The second worst blizzard of all time occurred in the 21st century in a Middle East nation. This time it was Afghanistan that was struck, with 926 people killed in 2008.

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