Sahara dust storm turns skies orange in Europe

Orange dusty sky with mountain in front and person standing atop.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jordi Coy in Elda, Alicante, Spain, took this image of the Sahara dust enveloping part of Spain on March 15, 2022. Jordi wrote: “The African haze has left this apocalyptic aspect as it passes through Spain. The atmospheric phenomenon of these last two days will go down in history as the largest incursion into the Iberian Peninsula since there are records. In the image, you can see the city of Elda under the dense blanket of sand of the Sahara desert and on the crest of the mountain a person observing.” Thank you, Jordi!

Poor air quality from Northern Africa into Europe

A powerful storm system brought clouds of Sahara dust to parts of southern Europe on Wednesday, leading to dramatic orange skies, very poor air quality and a layer of accumulating mud in Spain, Portugal and France. The Spanish state meteorology agency AEMET named the storm system Celia. In addition, Celia also brought powerful coastal winds and flooding rains, leading to severe weather warnings across the country. In fact, people reported dust and mud as far north as London, and forecasts say that the dust clouds will reach northern U.K. and Germany in the coming days.

Hazardous conditions

Likewise, air quality reached the worst possible level in Spain on Wednesday. Parts of Spain were under warnings for extremely unfavorable air conditions according to the Spanish national air quality index. Generally, this category indicates a density of particulates in the air that is hazardous for all age ranges and health groups, but especially dangerous for the elderly or people with asthma. In this case, meteorologists expect the dust to bring a serious risk of poor air quality as far north as London as Celia continues to develop through the week. Additionally, officials recommend that at-risk people remain indoors, and that everyone wear face masks to reduce the number of dust particulates they inhale.

Sahara dust: Creamy orange skies and landscape with trees, roads and distant buildings.
EarthSky’s own Theresa Wiegert took this image on March 15, 2022, from Granada, Spain, where Sahara dust covers the landscape. As a result, it brings a salmon-colored, Mars-like haze to the skies. Thank you, Theresa!

Sahara dust turns skies orange

Consequently, the thick dust turned skies red in Spain and Portugal on Wednesday, much like a scene from Mars. Indeed, people across the region took to social media to share their photos and videos. The dust was thick enough, for example, to accumulate several millimeters on some cars and buildings, blanketing the entire landscape in an orange hue.

In like manner, thick dust clouds filtered out other colors of sunlight, darkening the sky. Incredibly, even ski slopes in the mountains turned orange as the snow collected the Saharan dust. Also, the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Granada, Spain, closed because of Celia’s strong winds. Locals shared dramatic video of the orange snow covering the ski slopes. Likewise, mountain towns in the Swiss Alps also reported the red skies and orange-tinted snow on the mountain peaks.

Incoming Sahara dust storm

So how did this dust storm occur? First, the dust originated from Northern Africa on Tuesday, when Celia rolled in from the Atlantic. Consequently, strong southerly winds whipped up a dust storm in Algeria and Morocco and carried the particles across the Mediterranean Sea. This Calima windstorm is, actually, common in the spring for Spain and Portugal, but the amount of dust and wind brought by Storm Celia is extraordinary and very intense, according to AEMET. Presently, because the situation is still actively unfolding, it’s still unclear if the dust storm brought by Storm Celia is the strongest ever measured.

Blood rain in Spain

In addition, in the southern half of Spain, flooding rains from Celia overlapped with the dust storm. Mud rained from the sky in some towns, plastering streets and cars. People reported mud globs falling from the sky as far north as Paris on Wednesday morning. As an illustration, some residents in Southern Spain called the mud a blood rain.

What’s next for Storm Celia?

For now, the most intense dust clouds will remain over Spain, France and southern Europe through Wednesday and into Thursday. However, the dust should slowly dissipate through Thursday and Friday as Celia weakens over Spain. Then, forecasters expect the dusty skies and degraded air quality to reach regions further north, but it will be less intense than the conditions reported along the Mediterranean coast. Later, most of the dust will be carried in the mid-levels of the atmosphere, above 1 1/4 miles (2 km) high, according to the U.K. Met Office. Ultimately, as with many of the strongest Saharan dust storms, the smallest particles of dust could remain in the atmosphere for up to three weeks and circle the entire globe.

Bottom line: Storm Celia has whipped up Sahara dust and turned skies orange from Algeria across the Mediterranean into Spain and other parts of Europe. Now, dust chokes the skies and covers the landscape.

March 16, 2022

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