When people talk about the weather in Qatar, you could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t very difficult to predict – it’s always sunny, right? Steff Gaulter, Senior Weather Presenter for Al Jazeera English news channel, explains how the weather can be much more than just sun.

Steff graduated in Natural Science (Physics) at Cambridge University before joining the UK Met Office. There she trained in meteorology, becoming the first ever person to be awarded a distinction in the final forecasting exam. While at the Met Office, Steff was sent on secondment to the BBC where she began her presenting career. She has since presented the weather on Sky News, Sky Sports, Channel Five, and Sky Sports News in the UK, and most recently at Al Jazeera English, where Steff has been the Senior Weather Presenter since its launch in 2006.

If you’ve just arrived in Qatar, you’re probably still trying to get your head around the heat. Don’t worry too much, I’ve been here nearly seven years and it still impresses me that it can get this hot!

You’re probably wondering what on earth I’m doing here; a meteorologist in a place which seems to have no weather. My friends in the UK certainly found it hilarious when I said I was going to move to Doha – they told me I’d be as much use as a chocolate teapot! The simple answer is of course that Al Jazeera English is an international channel, so I forecast the weather all around the world. This means I get to forecast the biggest storms and the most exciting conditions. What’s more I can do this whilst enjoying the sunshine, which was always in short supply in the UK.

However, you may well be surprised how much weather we actually get in Qatar. For the first five years that I lived here my parents came to visit me about 10 times, but they never had five straight days of sunshine. They had rain, sandstorms and even fog, but not endless blue skies. I think they were beginning to wonder if Qatar was really a desert at all.

Photo credit: Gustav Brandt

It’s always sunny in Doha…

Of course the predominant type of weather in Qatar is hot sunshine, particularly in the months between mid-May and October. The extreme heat ensures that after a few years you end up with a strange perception of temperature. I have learnt to take my jumper with me if I want to go inside a shop or a restaurant. If it drops below about 25°C (77°F), I start to shiver and when I go back to the UK, I have to wear all my clothes at the same time, even in the summer. Don’t think that it’s just me either, last year I saw someone wearing ear warmers on 1 November. At the time it was 22°C.

The highest temperature we’ve reached in the last few decades was 50.4°C (123°F) in July 2010. There’s some strange conspiracy theory here that says that meteorologists can’t report the weather if it gets hotter than 50°C, because that’s the temperature that outdoor workers must stop working. Let me just reassure you that this is completely untrue. If it got to 50°C, I’d tell you. The thing is, it rarely does, no matter what your car thermometer might tell you!

Car thermometers aren’t the most reliable way of measuring the temperature, and they all vary from each other. The temperature reading will obviously be higher if it is near the engine, but it will also depend on what colour the car and the road are. Darker colours absorb more heat, so if your car is black it will probably give you a higher temperature reading. If the road is a darker tarmac, again the temperature reading would be higher.

Throughout the globe there is a strict standard for measuring temperatures. It needs to be taken in what’s known as a Stevenson Screen, which has to be made of wood, have slatted sides to allow the air to flow through and be a standard height above the ground. As the sun curves to the south in the southern hemisphere and the north in the northern hemisphere, the standard even dictates that it has to open in the direction of the nearest pole, to ensure direct sunlight doesn’t flood into the screen and raise the temperature. Your car may be many things, but it’s not a Stevenson Screen on wheels. This is probably a good thing considering the safety aspect of driving a wooden box in Qatar!

stevenson screen
Getting the weather right using a Stevenson Screen

This weather is making my hair frizzy…

You car’s thermometer will give you a helpful idea of the temperature, but it is only a rough guide. You’ll notice that in the hotter months, it’s the humidity which dictates how hot the weather feels rather than the actual temperature reading anyway. The more humid it is, the more uncomfortable the weather feels, even if the actual reading on the thermometer may have fallen. That’s because it’s easier for water to evaporate in dry air. When you get hot, your body will sweat to keep you cool (although if you’re a lady of course, you’ll ‘glow’ rather than ‘sweat’). The moisture will evaporate from your skin, but evaporation is a difficult process which requires a lot of energy. The water uses your body’s heat as its energy, thereby cooling you down as your sweat evaporates. However, if there is a lot of moisture already in the air that moisture will evaporate more slowly, and therefore you’ll feel hotter.

The humidity arrives suddenly in the summer. The majority of May and June are dry, with winds coming from the north. However, in July, the humidity arrives. It’s not with us every day, but you’ll certainly notice when it is! It feels worse in the evenings and overnight, and that’s when you sometimes see people driving along with their windscreen wipers on, because the water in the air is condensing so quickly onto their car.

Humidity is a measure of how close the air is to saturation and it has a special relationship with temperature. The hotter the air is, the more moisture can evaporate into it. Therefore during the height of the midday sun, when the temperature is at its maximum, more water could evaporate into the air so the humidity is generally lower. During the evening, when the temperature drops, the air becomes closer to saturation and therefore more humid.

When air is completely saturated, you will be able to see the moisture, either as rain or fog. When it is close to saturation, you will see the condensation form on things that are cooler than the outside air – onto your home’s window panes or your car, especially if your air conditioning is on.

steff in make up
Gaulter getting ready for the big screen!

I’m sure this summer has been the hottest one ever…

Some years are definitely worse than others, but the hottest and most humid of the weather lasts until mid-September. After this there’s not the sudden change in humidity that there is in July, but the weather slowly improves, gradually becoming less hot and less humid. By January, believe it or not, you’ll hear people complaining that it’s too cold.

Don’t be surprised if you still find it rather hot at the beginning of November, but at this time of year there’s also the chance of seeing some other types of weather, not just hot sun. We get about 75 mm (3 inches) of rain in Doha a year. To be classed as a desert, you need to get less than 250 mm (10 inches), so clearly 75 mm isn’t much at all. London, considered a dry capital would expect 558 mm (22 inches) per year, Sydney 1223 mm (48 inches) and Mumbai 2431 mm (96 inches).

When it does finally rain in Qatar, it’s often a big event and usually makes it into the newspapers. A former colleague of mine tried to tell me that it was therefore easy to forecast in Doha, quipping, ‘Just read the newspaper!’ If only it were that simple! Forecasting here is a scary business. This is partly because there is less information here (we don’t have radar images to see where the rain is, and the satellite images are often corrupted by sandstorms) and partly because there are fewer people doing the same thing as you.

At Sky News, where I worked before Al Jazeera, you could watch ITV and the BBC, and compare it with what you were saying. Here, I don’t have that luxury, especially as I don’t speak Arabic (of which I’m very ashamed having lived here so long). All you can do is forecast to the best of your ability, stick your neck out and hope the predicted thunderstorm or sandstorm will materialise.

In Qatar, the majority of our rain comes from thunderstorm clouds, meaning they are often accompanied by lightning and even hail – yes that’s ice, in the desert! When there’s a really decent lightning display, you’ll see people pull over at the side of the road to watch, and when it does rain properly, you’ll remember there are no drains. Be prepared for the roads to flood, particularly the inside lanes of roundabouts!

As the temperatures ease towards the end of the year, you can also expect to see a few foggy mornings. You might think it’s strange that we get fog in a desert, but it’s simply because the humid air is gradually cooling down. If the air cools enough, the water in the air will condense into water droplets, forming fog. Fog is notoriously difficult to forecast, wherever in the world you might be. I learnt that from my teacher at the UK Met Office, who never once got it right in the six months he was teaching us!

The weather in Qatar might not be as dramatic as elsewhere in the world, but that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t have any. While I’ve got my eyes on the typhoons, tornadoes and droughts taking place around the world, I’m also checking for subtle signs of change in our weather too, and wondering when the first thunderstorm of the season will arrive.


Author: Steff Gaulter

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