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Inside Spain: Saharan dust and smoking on terraces

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Inside Spain: Saharan dust and smoking on terraces
Madrid's skyline amid haze carrying particles, a phenomenon known as 'calima'. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

In this week's Inside Spain, we examine how the 'calima' weather phenomenon is more common than ever across the country and how the prospect of banning smoking on terraces nationwide has Spanish bar owners scared stiff.

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Have you noticed that calima or Saharan dust seems to be becoming more frequent in mainland Spain? It happened last week as well as in January, when the cloud of dust reached Scandinavia and even South America.   

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

Given the Canary Islands’ proximity to northwestern Africa, calima has always been far more common there than in the Iberian Peninsula, but even in the Atlantic archipelago the frequency of these periods of extremely poor air quality is on the up now.

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In fact, there were only 12 days without calima the entire winter in the Canaries, according to Spanish national weather agency Aemet. 

The Canary Islands may be in the eye of the storm but people everywhere in Spain from Seville to Madrid and up to Bilbao are becoming increasingly familiar with finding Saharan dust on their cars and patios, and even reading headlines such as lluvia de sangre (blood rain) whenever the rain mixes with the dust. 

The EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) recently reported on this spike in calima cases: “Winter 2024 is seeing a relatively high number of intense Saharan dust intrusions over Europe and Latin America. While dust transport is a normal atmospheric event in the region, the intensity and frequency of such episodes in recent years could be related to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns.” 

According to the European Geosciences Union (EGU), the frequency of suspended Saharan dust doubled from 2020 to 2022.

But apart from getting fewer days of clear blue skies in Spain, does this spike in dust in the air really matter?

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

Although a high concentration of PM10 particles isn’t good in general, short periods of exposure aren’t harmful for most people. However, more intense and frequent exposure has been linked to worsening heart and lung conditions

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More calima is a reminder that Spain’s climate is changing, as well as being an unavoidable consequence of living in a country that isn’t far from the Sahara, responsible for 70 percent of the dust in suspension worldwide.

And from one thing that’s not very good for your health to another that’s even worse: smoking. 

Spain is in the process of rolling out a new anti-out smoking legislation and perhaps the most controversial clause is that relating to lighting up in public places, outdoor bar and restaurant terraces in particular. 

Outdoor living is a quintessential part of life in Spain, and smoking un cigarrillo with a coffee or a beer is a basic hedonistic practice for 8 millions of Spaniards. 

We’d lose 40 percent of our customers,” hospitality bosses have warned, arguing that waiters would have to act as police officers and that authorities should consider other outdoor public spaces such as bus stops, beaches or universities. 

It’s no wonder it’s taking the Spanish government years to approve amendments to the anti tobacco law when interfering with the enjoyment of a quarter of the population is at stake.

Spain’s Health Minister Mónica García has stressed that whatever prohibition is implemented will “always be based on scientific evidence” and that she “isn’t scared” of how the public would react if smoking on terraces was banned.

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