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.

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Where are the hottest places in Spain?

Summer has arrived early in Spain this year. But where are the places where it's likely to be scorching every single year? And what’s the highest temperature ever recorded in Spain?

Where are the hottest places in Spain?

Anyone in Spain at the moment will tell you the same: ¡hace calor! (it’s hot!)

Summer seems to have arrived early this year, whether it be Seville already sweltering in the mid-30’s, Madrid approaching 30, or 7 to 8 °C temperature increases across the rest of the country, May is getting some serious heat.

It’s no surprise that it gets hot in Spain, but where are the cities that are always boiling during the summer? 

Highest average summer temperatures

  1. Córdoba takes the top spot for highest maximum average temperature in Spain, averaging a staggering 36.5°C throughout the month of August.
  2. Seville makes it an Andalusian top two, averaging 35.5°C in August. 
  3. Badajoz, also in the south-west of Spain but in the region of Extremadura, averages 34.5°C during August.
  4. Murcia. Spaniards may jokingly say Murcia doesn’t exist but it certainly does and it’s hot – with a maximum average temperature of 34.2°C throughout the month of August. 
  5. Granada fills out the top 5 and makes it three Andalusian cities in the top 5. Granada, like Murcia, enjoys maximum average temperatures of 34.2°C in August.

It can also get boiling hot in other cities in Spain’s interior such as Madrid, Zaragoza, Toledo or Ciudad Real, but they don’t make the top five ranking.

Spain’s hottest cities are in areas where the mercury is likely to be just as high during the summer months, such as the Baetic Depression of the Guadalquivir river (Seville), the Tajo Valley (Badajoz), the Vega del Segura alluvial plain (Murcia) and the Ebro Valley (Zaragoza).

Some towns with a reputation for being extremely hot during the summer are Montoro (Córdoba), Morón de la Frontera (Seville), Molina de Segura (Murcia) and Écija also near Córdoba, which is referred to as the ‘frying pan’ of Spain.

Map showing the average high temperatures during the summer months in Spain from 1981 to 2010. Source: AEMET

Highest average winter temperatures in Spain

Summer doesn’t last forever in Spain but there are many parts of the country that stay warm throughout the winter:

  1. Gran Canaria – 22°C. Together with the other Canary Islands, Gran Canaria stays mild and breezy during the winter months thanks to its geographic position and the ever-present trade winds.
  2. Seville – The Andalusian capital can get a bit cold at times in winter but it averages 15°C during December.
  3. Valencia – The eastern city’s positioning on the Mediterranean means it also averages 15°C throughout December.
  4. Mallorca – It may not always be beach weather during winter in the Balearics but 14°C on average in December is very tolerable.

Hottest temperatures ever recorded

Spain not only has incredibly high average temperatures year round, but the height of summer reaches some scorching highs. We’ve taken a look at the highest single temperatures ever recorded in Spain:

    1. Montoro. The single highest temperature ever recorded in Spain was in the small town of Montoro in the north-east of Córdoba province. The town of 9000 reached a staggering 47.3 °C in July 2017.
    2. Mengíbar. The small town in Jaén province topped out at 47.1 °C in August 2011.
    3. Badajoz. A quirk of history, and heat, is that Badajoz maxed out at 47 °C in both June 1864 and August 1964, almost exactly 100 years later!
    4. Seville. The Andalusian capital also registered 47 °C in 1946.
    5. El Hierro. The small Canary Island also reached 47 °C in August 1996.

A couple take a photo of a street thermometer reading 48 degrees Celsius during a heatwave in Cordoba on August 2021. These street thermometers aren’t always accurate as they’re baking in the sun. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Unofficial records 

The maximum temperatures above are the official list, but Spain has also had some rumoured, or unconfirmed scorchers that weren’t made reliably. In July 1876 and August 1881, for example, temperatures of 51 °C and 50 °C were both reported in Seville but were measured in poor technical conditions so aren’t considered reliable results. But anyone who has spent time in Seville or Andalusia during the summer won’t have any trouble believing it.