BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hot air from the Sahara Desert has swirled over the Mediterranean Sea and coated Spain with red-orange dust, prompting authorities to issue extremely bad air quality warnings Tuesday for Madrid and a large swath of the country.
The national air quality index listed the capital and large parts of the southeast coast as “extremely unfavorable” — its worst rating.
Spain’s weather service described the dust storm from the Sahara as “extraordinary and very intense,” while adding that it was unclear if it was the worst episode of its kind on record. Spain’s weather service forecast that the dust will continue to accumulate through Wednesday and could reach as far north as the Netherlands and northwestern Germany.
On Tuesday, the dust storm spilled over into neighboring Portugal.
Many Spaniards awoke to find a layer of red-orange dust covering their terraces, streets and cars. The sky in the capital and other cities had a gritty tinge. Visibility in Madrid and cities like Granada and Leon was reduced to 2.5 miles (four kilometers), the weather service said.
In Málaga, on the southern coast, the dust mixed with rain in the air before coming down.
“It is like it was raining mud,” said Álvaro López, a student at the University of Málaga. “I was in the car this morning and mud was literally falling.”
Emergency authorities in the worst areas recommended that residents use face masks, which are still widely in use from the pandemic, if they go outside and avoid outdoor exercise.
The wave of hot air has also affected the air quality north of Madrid, as far west as Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, where these events are more frequent, and in Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean.
The weather service said the mass of hot air from Africa, which was brought in by a storm that delivered some much-needed rain for drought-hit Spain, also pushed temperatures in some areas up to 20 degrees Celsius (68 F).
Rubén del Campo, a spokesman for Spain’s weather service, said while it was unclear if climate change had a direct link to this episode, the expansion of the Sahara Desert over the past century has increased the potential for larger dust storms in Europe.
He also said the increasingly turbulent weather patterns linked to climate change could play a part.
“There are many concerns regarding the impact that climate change is having on the patterns of the frequency and intensity of the storms that favor the arrival of dust to our country,” Del Campo said.