Weather in Spain: What is ‘calima’ and is it bad for you?

If the sky in your part of Spain has turned yellow or orange, the visibility is poor and the air is stuffier, then it’s highly likely it’s calima. But what is this atmospheric phenomenon and is it bad for your health?

Weather in Spain: What is 'calima' and is it bad for you?
Cars drive on the TF-1 highway during a sandstorm in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, on the Canary Island of Tenerife. (Photo by DESIREE MARTIN / AFP)

Much of Spain may enjoy clear blue skies for a large part of the year but there are places which sometimes look like a post-apocalyptic world where visibility is low and everything is dusty. This is known as calima.  

What is calima?

Calima is the Spanish word used to describe when there’s sand or dust in suspension in the atmosphere. The English translation is haze. 

There are two types of calima – type A calima refers to natural haze from sand, dust and other particles that come from the environment, whereas type B calima refers to the haze that comes as a result of pollution or ash from a forest fire for example. 

Even though some of Spain’s bigger cities do often suffer poor air quality as a result of pollution, the most striking episodes of calima come as a result of huge sand clouds from the Sahara blowing over to the Spanish territory, given Spain’s relative proximity with the 9.2 million square kilometre desert.

Visibility is poor, the sky turns either yellow, orange or red, the air is usually drier and more stifling, it gets harder to breathe and everything is covered in a layer of dust.

A hazy sunset in Gran Canaria. Photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes/Flickr

Calima episodes tend to last between three and five days.

When rainfall occurs during a period of calima, it leads to muddy rain, known as lluvia de barro in Spanish, as dust and sand particles are dragged down by the rain to the surface.

Calima is often confused with Sirocco, but they aren’t the same. Although they both come from the Sahara, Calima is usually more stifling, hot and contains dust, whereas Sirocco coming from the Sahara contains more moisture by the time it reaches southern Europe. 

Where is there most calima in Spain?

Given the Canary Islands’s proximity to northwestern Africa (Fuerteventura is only 100km from the Moroccan coastline), the Atlantic archipelago experiences by far the most common episodes of calima in Spain. 

Whenever there are sand storms in the Sahara or Sahel deserts and the trade winds blow south or east, the Canaries experience calima. This happens many times throughout the year, with varying degrees of severity.

A satellite image by Nasa shows how easy it is for the Canaries’ most easterly islands to be affected by sand blowing over from the Sahara.

However, during adverse meteorological conditions and periods of extreme wind, it’s not uncommon for parts of the Spanish mainland including Andalusia, Murcia and the Valencia region to also be affected by calima. 

During Storm Celia in March 2022, a huge cloud of suspended dust covered almost the entire Spanish mainland and the Balearic Islands and reached as far up as France, combining with a period of stormy weather to create mud rain. 

Is calima bad for people’s health?

During periods of extreme calima, parts of Spain experience some of the worst air quality in the world.

Particles that measure less than 10 microns enter our body through the respiratory tract and reach the lungs and the blood. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers that a concentration of suspended dust higher than 50 milligrams per cubic metre can be harmful to people’s health.

Although a high concentration of PM10 particles isn’t good in general, short periods of exposure won’t be harmful to most people, apart from maybe causing some difficulty breathing, itchy eyes, a dry throat and potentially a cough.

However, for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, asthma or allergies, calima can be problematic and cause problems such as bronchitis, chest pain or palpitations. 

These people should aim to spend as little time as possible outdoors during periods of calima, and it’s advisable for them to wear a face mask if they do have to go out.  

The general advice for everyone else is to close doors and windows (to keep their homes clean and prevent breathing the dust-filled air), avoid doing exercise outdoors, drink plenty of water and keep surfaces at home clean with a damp cloth.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.