Calima - Morocco - Canary Islands - Sandstorm

Nightmare sandstorm: Calima – a desert wind of superlatives sealed off the Canaries

Martina Roters
26.02.2020
6 minutes

Not only the travellers on board of flight X3-2668, who had been dreaming of carnival on the Canary Islands at take-off in Halle/Leipzig, were disappointed when their plane turned around over the Spanish mainland and then landed in Nuremberg. What had happened, how could it come to this and what are the passenger’s rights?

Over 800 flights had to be cancelled or diverted, tens of thousands of passengers were affected. On Sunday, all 8 airports on the Canary Islands were temporarily closed, by the way, also the ferry connections were partially suspended after ship collisions. The Spanish Minister of Transport, José Luis Abalos, thanked for the solidarity of the surrounding countries to which incoming flights were diverted: Cape Verde, Mauritania, Portugal and especially Agadir in Morocco.

During the course of Monday, the situation at the airports returned to normal.

The personal reactions of travellers on social media were mixed – from personal disappointment about not coming home to Austria from the semester break to the joy of a 16-year-old girl who was therefore not back in time for school, to ranting and raving about the staff of airlines who failed to find hotel rooms for all stranded travellers so that they had to spend the night at the airport.

Why can’t a plane fly in a sandstorm?

Reason number one, of course, is the acutely poor visibility. There is also the danger that the cockpit windscreen will be “sandblasted” by the impact of particles at airspeed and then become as opaque as frosted glass when landing.

There is a precedent for this with a volcanic ash cloud: KLM Flight 867 in 1989, but the KLM pilots also had another problem: At that time they had to cope with the failure of all four engines as well.

That is the second major danger. The sand in the engines can melt, accumulate and clog the engines. The third danger: Even the flow sensors of some manufacturers that provide the pilot – or the autopilot – with important information for flight operations are not immune to “sand attack”.

Last but not least: The outer skin of the aircraft can become roughened, which reduces lift and makes the aircraft more difficult to control.
Not to mention the economic damage. The repair of the KLM Boeing 747 cost 80 million USD and three months of work.

Carnavalgeddon – doomsday gloom, fires, shortness of breath…

These days, the holiday pictures of the archipelago look as if the Canarian Islands had been provided with a sepia filter. Some people even add the comments like: “There is no filter in this picture”, so that their friends understand that the brown-reddish picture represents the unbelievable reality.

The Calima weather situation is no joke; it is the fifth time this year but this time the effects reached extreme forms, as the Canarian President Angel Victor Torres explained in the press: “A nightmare as a result of the worst Calima in 40 years”:

Not only air and ferry traffic were paralysed, but also carnival events and football matches were cancelled, schools were closed and the population was urged to keep windows and doors closed, as the levels of particulate matter were beyond good and evil.

Moroccan desert
The Calima brings the sand of the Moroccan desert to the Canary Islands / © Pixabay Greg Montani

Everyone who was on the Canary Islands that weekend breathed the worst air of the planet: At times values of up to 999 points (in Las Palmas) were achieved according to the Air Quality Index:

By comparison, the well-known Beijing smog air scores less than 250 points.

The poor air quality was not only caused by the sandstorm itself but also due to the numerous fires that the Calima fueled: for example on Gran Canaria, near the nature reserve Tasarte, where the military was also called to fight the fire. 500 people were temporarily evacuated.

Also heavily affected was the north of Tenerife, where a total of 1000 people had to be evacuated: fighting the fire from the air was not possible and the hot desert wind strongly fanned the fires. The nightmare is now over – but the clean-up work will probably take several weeks.

The islanders took this extraordinary Calima either with meme humour on Twitter or they criticised local politicians, such as the mayor of Santa Cruz, who did not cancel the carnival, although this tied up several emergency forces that were urgently needed in the north.

What is Calima (Kalima) anyway?

Let’s ask the authority that deals with it all the time – AEMET, the Spanish weather service:

Hovering debris of dry, very small particles invisible to the human eye, concentrated enough to color the sky. One speaks of Calima when reduced visibility and relative humidity below 70 percent coincide.

AEMET, Spanish weather service

Simplified, people call the hot Sahara wind like this that brings this sand dust with it. When it unloads its red-brown cargo in Germany, it’s called Scirocco.

This video gives you a little insight into the events:

How is Calima (Kalima) created? And are there any effects on the climate?

When very high temperatures prevail in the Sahara, thermal turbulence occurs. The sand dust is whirled up to an altitude of 5000 metres. The cooling of the ground causes a layer of air to form which prevents it from sinking down again. As soon as a strong wind then arises, it takes this dust freight with it.

Also unclear are the climatic effects of this latest Calima, since the dust particles cause more cloud formation and, through their power of absorption, they influence solar radiation, which in turn affects the energy arriving on the surface of the earth and the quantity and distribution of rainfall.

The two faces of the Calima (Kalima)

The word Calima is said to originate from Calina (Calina + bruma, Spanish for fog), which in turn originates from the Latin “caligo, caliginis”. Which means “fog, smoke, darkness”. Well, if that doesn’t fit!

But there is also a second interpretation, especially if you spell Kalima with K. The Sahara wind bears the name of a goddess. Who remembers the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? In this movie, the dark temple priest calls incessantly: Kali ma! (Mother Kali). The goddess Kali is not only the goddess of death and destruction, but is also worshipped as the divine mother who gives life.

When we’re now given to understand that Kalima does not stop over the Canary Islands, but that the Sahara dust is transported all the way to South America – the technical term is aeolian transport – it becomes clear that in nature everything always has two sides.

The desert of the Sahara is not nutrient-poor but simply too dry. Sahara dust is rich in calcium and magnesium and the Sahara aerosols provide the rainforests of South America with their atmospheric fertiliser. 40 million tons of Sahara dust arrive there every year.

Force majeure – is there nothing the passenger can do?

Airlines and airports are powerless against cosmic forces. In this respect, it is also correct and understandable that an odyssey due to sandstorms must be booked under “bad luck”.

However, the airline has the obligation to “keep the disturbance for the passengers as low as possible”. For example, the Hamburg District Court (Case No.: 36a C 251/13) ruled in a case of a 22-hour delay that a sandstorm was indeed an exceptional circumstance which absolved the airline of responsibility. In the specific case, however, the court held that if the storm had abated, it would have been able to transport the passengers to their destination (the storm had abated in time).
It therefore depends very much on the individual case. If an airline behaves recognizably incompetent, one should get legal advice if necessary.

Due to the climate change it is to be expected that such weather phenomena will occur more often in the future. To enable more precise forecasts, Air New Zealand has recently started a cooperation with NASA.

by Martina Roters

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