What is Turning Our Skies ORANGE?

orange sky over Acropolis in Athens

When the sky turns an eerie shade of orange its normal to start asking the question, why? Not only does the sky look like it is aflame and visibility is extremely low, but there are serious health risks involved caused by smoke and dust.

This phenomenon, most often caused by smoke or dust storms, is especially dangerous to those vulnerable to poor air quality, including seniors and young children. All people are advised to stay in doors and close all windows and doors.

Health authorities also warn people with medical conditions which affect their breathing – like asthma – to limit the amount of time they spend outdoors, wear protective masks and avoid doing physical exercise outside until the dust clouds clear.

Athens, Greece, April 23 2024

The dust storm was so strong on Wednesday morning, that famous landmarks like the Acropolis in Athens were no longer visible because of the dust.

Another video from Athens in April, 2023

Also from Athens, April 2023

“It’s one of the most serious episodes of dust and sand concentrations from the Sahara since March 21-22, 2018.”

Kostas Lagouvardos, a weather research director at the Athens Observatory.

The dust storn was caused by high winds blowing desert sand over the Mediterranean. However, dust in this storm retained high concentrations out into the Mediterranean. It’s “quite unusual” to have such high values this far from the source.

The Sahara Desert releases around 60 to 200 million tonnes of sandy dust each year. Most of it stays in the desert, but some of the small dust particles can be blown thousands of miles away, sometimes reaching Europe.

mediterraneanai omp 2015032

The timing of the storm was also unusual. “Such intense dust storms over the Mediterranean are most common in spring, so this is clearly early for the season,” said Karlsruhe Institute of Technology meteorologist Peter Knippertz.

Greece was not the only country affected. Spain also recorded record orange skies and dust in April 2023 over the same period. They called it the “calima”.

Malaga, Spain in April 2024

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Another photo from Spain in 2022.

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A video from Spain in March 2022

The Saharan sandstorms are so huge, they can cross the Atlantic Ocean, like they did in June 2021.

Miami, Florida in June 2021

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The dust is part of 60 million tons of sand and mineral particles that are annually swept up off the African desert floor and pushed westwards across the ocean by winds.

In 2020 the “Godzilla” storm that dumped dust on North and South America was so large that it was visible from the International Space Station.

Godzilla Dust Storm
A satellite image of the June 2020 trans-Atlantic dust storm. Credit: NASA/NOAA

This year’s dust storms were fueled by stogy winds in Mali and Mauritania, carrying the cloud over Senegal, Gambia and Cabo Verde and out into the Atlantic.

And NASA satellites using infrared imaging picked up the cloud out over the middle of the Atlantic by 7 June.

Some of the dust even reaches the Amazon region of South America, where experts say that minerals it contains, such as iron and phosphorus act as a fertiliser.

NYC and New Jersey, 2023

NYC, George Washington Bridge, 2023

An incredible timelapse video of wildfire smoke consuming the World Trade Center and the New York City skyline.

The images and videos coming out of New York look like a scene out of “Mad Max”. The cause this was time was wildfires in Quebec.

The fires started early on drier-than-usual ground and accelerated quickly, aided by the prolonged hot, dry weather.

“The month of May was just off the charts – record warm in much of Canada,” said Eric James, a modelling expert with the Co-operative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado who is also with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The enormous cloud of pollution covered the entire East Coast. In the US, officials paused some flights on Wednesday bound for New York’s LaGuardia airport but this was later lifted. 

“Everything was completely orange. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Kimberly Saltz of New York City said. She said she remembers her first thought when she looked out her window Wednesday: “This looks like Mars!”

Major metro areas had air quality indexes ranging from 200 to 300 – which is considered “very unhealthy,” according to government website AirNow.gov.

However, the causes of other orange sky phenomena are not always so clear cut:

North Texas by Wichita Falls, May 2023

San Francisco International Airport in 2020. This photo was taken at 2:40 in the afternoon.

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Citations

Researchers Examine “Godzilla”, scitechdaily.com, June 1, 2021
Why is the sky orange in New York? How the Canada wildfires caused the colour change, inews.co.uk, June 8, 2023
Florida skies to turn orange as dust storm travels over from Sahara, independent.co.uk, Tuesday 15 June 2021
Why wildfire smoke turns the sky orange, according to science, washingtonpost.com, June 8, 2023
Athens turns orange as winds carry dust from Sahara desert, euronews.com, 24 April 2024

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