Skies above Europe are murky this week, and many surfaces look as if they’ve been stained orange, after a huge plume of dust from the Sahara made its way north on March 15. Some ski slopes and snowy mountain peaks have begun to look like a creamsicle-themed winter wonderland or a landscape on Mars.
This isn’t new.
Dust plumes that worsen air quality, cut visibility, and coat surfaces in muted earthy colors have hovered over Spain before. But the rusty clouds aren’t always this big and don’t always span several countries at once. The huge dust cloud was swept north after Storm Celia recently hit the Canary Islands with rain, snow, and strong winds. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory blog, an atmospheric river, which is often associated with moving moisture around, followed the storm, bringing the huge dust plume up to Spain and France. It’s expected to reach Germany and parts of the Netherlands this week as well, France 24 reported.
“The same atmospheric dynamics that give rise to a water vapor river—specifically strong winds—can act to pick up and transport dust as the storm moves across desert areas,” atmospheric scientist Bin Guan told NASA Earth Observatory.
Atmospheric rivers are long and narrow sections of the atmosphere that often move vapor around and drop it to land as rain or snow. They also carry dust plumes, including very large ones like this week’s traveler.
An enormous cloud in 2020 was one of the largest desert dust plumes in recent history and was one of the most intense and dense desert dust clouds recorded, according to Vox. Much like the one this week, that cloud engulfed entire areas of Europe. It eventually made its way over to Florida, Texas, and the Caribbean.
Although the dust can muck things up for human, including causing respiratory issues, it’s a natural mechanism that carries micronutrients that help fertilize rainforests.
The history of the wandering dust plumes has even inspired music—I grew up listening to a Puerto Rican song called “Los Polvos Del Sahara,” or the Saharan dust, in which people humorously blame all of their problems on the dust.