Saharan sands float north to Europe, coating cities with dust

The sandstorm, known as a calima in Spain, began covering much of the Iberian Peninsula on Tuesday morning, blanketing cars and buildings in a thick red dust and making it harder to breathe in the stiflingly dry air.

A calima occurs when a burst of dusty, warm wind forms during sandstorms in the Sahara and then crosses over from the African desert. With rain forecast in Madrid on Thursday morning, residents were bracing themselves for a muddy rain.

“There’s not much that can be done at this stage,” said Miguel Serrano, a porter in Madrid, who said he had been busy sweeping dust outside his building Wednesday. “Let’s now see whether the rain helps clean it up or at least makes the air more pleasant.”

While Spain’s skies tended toward the apocalyptic, with blood orange colours reminiscent of areas besieged by wildfires, the effects were more subtle elsewhere.

From the Swiss Alps to Britain, residents of countries far from the Sahara looked out their windows Wednesday and noticed something slightly off. It was not the end times, sky-on-fire hues of Spain, but rather a vague sense that this is not how it usually is.

In London, it was as if the skies had been run through a sepia-toned filter, a slightly unsettling aura that could easily be taken as a harbinger of nothing good. It was the grey-orange colour the sky would be in a movie about a town recovering from nuclear fallout.

Saharan sands float north to Europe, coating cities with dust

Although the phenomenon isn’t new, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service described this week’s events as “an exceptional Saharan dust episode,” with “very high concentrations of coarse particulate matter.”

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the service, said it was not unusual in February and March for wind to kick up sand in the Sahara, sending it on an international voyage as far away as South America. There were traces of Saharan dust in Britain last year as well, he said.

But it is typically not as noticeable as it has been this week, he said. The storm was stronger because of “weather patterns being in the right configuration to bring it directly into Europe,” he said.

In the coming days, the dust is expected to move north through Europe, reaching as far as Denmark, before fading by the weekend, the monitoring service said.

“The current concentrations of particulate matter in the transports are exceptionally high, and some studies predict that climate change will result in even more intense Saharan dust storms in the future,” the service said in a statement. It added that the storms would threaten to worsen air quality, affect the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and speed the decline of glaciers.

On Wednesday, Spain’s health ministry called the sandstorm an emergency situation and issued a warning to residents to stay indoors and keep doors and windows shut to avoid inhaling particles, particularly people with existing breathing problems. The ministry also warned drivers to show caution because of diminished visibility. Overall, the ministry said people should “reduce all outdoor activity.”

Spain is often on the front line of winds and storms coming from the Sahara and Sahel deserts because it is separated from Morocco only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Still, weather experts said that it was rare for the calima to hit Madrid and other parts of central or northern Spain with such intensity.

Episodes of calima are, however, relatively common in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa. In February 2020, the Canary Islands were hit by their worst sandstorm in 40 years, forcing airports to close at a time of year when the islands receive many tourists from northern Europe seeking a mild winter climate.

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