Ski resorts that look like deserts, skies colored brilliant hues of orange, and air quality five times worse than ideal conditions all have one thing in common: Saharan dust, which is expected to worsen over Western and Central Europe and even bring “blood rain.”
A large, brown swath of Saharan dust can be seen in numerous satellite images blanketing much of Portugal, Spain and France, leading to air quality concerns and hazy skies.
The strong winds from Storm Celia off the northwest coast of Africa picked up dust from the Sahara desert and lofted it into the atmosphere. The southerly winds then pushed the dust northward into Europe, creating haunting scenes across the region.
A video posted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) shows the eerie scene at a ski resort in Spain where the snow appears to be sand and the skies give off a vibrant orange glow.
The WMO also posted a photo from Switzerland showing the snow-covered mountains appearing a rusty shade of orange, which is a sharp contrast to the pristine white snow typical of the region.
Europe can expect brilliant sunsets as a result of the dust particles scattering the sun’s rays.
Stunning orange and red skies can be expected as the sun rises and sets with reduced visibility and hazy skies anticipated throughout the day.
With enough dust in the air to alter the hues of the natural landscape across Western Europe, there is an obvious concern for air quality as well.
Spain, France, and Portugal are particularly at risk for decreased air quality as a result of experiencing the highest volumes of dust from the plume.
On Tuesday, the European Environment Agency already measured dust concentrations in Spain over five times the European Union’s recommended threshold for air quality, according to Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation program. Air quality continues to be poor in the region today as well.
“Air quality is recognised as being vital to human health as high concentrations of dust can have health impacts on the respiratory systems of all people in the affected regions and add to particulate matter air pollution from local sources,” Copernicus states.
The reduced air quality leaves those with respiratory issues, such as asthma, particularly vulnerable over the next few days as the air quality continues to diminish.
What goes up must come back down
Late in the week, Storm Celia is forecast to bring showers across much of Western Europe, with heavy rain expected in southeastern Spain. This chance for greater precipitation brings the potential for “blood rain” to parts of Spain as the rain mixes with the high dust concentration.
“It is understood that blood rain occurs when relatively high concentrations of red coloured dust or particles get mixed into rain, giving it a red appearance as it falls,” the United Kingdom Met Office said.
As the rain falls through the atmosphere, it grabs the dust particles that are in the air causing dust deposits to fall and cover cars, houses, and roads.
With more dust forecast to move into Western and Central Europe through the end of the week, there will be ample dust in the atmosphere for the rain to bring down to the surface.
Once the dust settles, Europe should expect to see the dust clear out by early next week, welcoming back blue skies and increased air quality.
Saharan dust plumes are not an uncommon phenomenon in Europe
Dust storms are a familiar occurrence in the meteorology world, particularly in dry areas. They are usually caused by storm systems moving into an area where the strong winds are able to lift up the dust across a large region, the WMO notes.
We will likely see more of these events in the near future. Climate change could be worsening the Saharan dust transport to Europe, as wind and precipitation patterns change as a result of warming temperatures of the land and ocean.
Widespread desertification in Northern Africa and stronger winds over the Mediterranean could be making these dust events more intense, research has shown.