In 1984, the charitable supergroup Band Aid sang: “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time.” In fact, it does snow in Africa at high elevations. Kilimanjaro has long been crowned by a cap of snow and ice, though it has been shrinking. Skiiers travel for natural and manufactured snow in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, as well as a few spots in South Africa and Lesotho.
Nonetheless, snow on the edge of the Sahara Desert is rare. On December 19, 2016, snow fell on the Algerian town of Ain Sefra, which is sometimes referred to as the “gateway to the desert.” The town of roughly 35,000 people sits between the Atlas Mountains and the northern edge of the Sahara. The last recorded snowfall in Ain Sefra occurred in February 1979.
The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) on the Landsat 7 satellite acquired a natural-color image (above) of snow in North Africa on December 19, 2016. The scene shows an area near the border of Morocco and Algeria, south of the city of Bouarfa and southwest of Ain Sefra.
Though news accounts have been dominated by the snow in the desert city, a review of several years of satellite data suggests that snow is also unusual in this section of the Saharan Atlas range. The images below show December observations made over the past four years by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. The false-color images blend infrared, shortwave infrared, and visible red wavelengths, and snow shows up as a bright blue-green color.
Photographer Karim Bouchetata has posted a series of photos showing a thin veil of white atop the orange dunes and green vegetation around Ain Sefra. See his facebook page. Sadly, the snow was gone by the next day.
The snow fell in a region where summertime temperatures average 37°Celsius (99°Fahrenheit), though wintertime temperatures have been known to get down into the single digits Celsius (30s Fahrenheit). Such moisture is as rare as the cool temperatures, given that just a few centimeters (inches) of precipitation fall here in an entire year.
- The Independent (2016, December 21) First Sahara desert snow in 40 years captured in photographs. Accessed December 21, 2016.
- Pulse Nigeria (2016, December 21) Snow falls in Sahara for first time in 37 years. Accessed December 21, 2016.
- The Washington Post (2016, December 21) ‘Everyone was stunned’: Snow falls in Sahara desert town for first time in 37 years. Accessed December 21, 2016.
‘Everyone was stunned’: Snow falls in Sahara desert town for first time in 37 years
In the Sahara desert, known for its suffocating heat, a freak snow shower coated the dusty dunes near the Algerian town of Ain Sefra.
It hadn’t snowed in the town called “The Gateway to the Desert” since 1979.
Photographer Karim Bouchetata captured gorgeous images of the red rolling dunes frosted in white.
“Everyone was stunned to see snow falling in the desert, it is such a rare occurrence,” Bouchetata told the Independent. “It looked amazing as the snow settled on the sand.”
Bouchetata added that the snow lingered a day before melting.
Ain Sefra, founded in 1881, has a population of about 35,000. It’s in western Alegria about 28 miles east of the border with Morocco.
While it has a blistering hot summer climate, with average highs around 100, it’s somewhat chilly during winter. Perched at an elevation of more than 3,500 feet (1,078 meters), its average December high temperature is only around 50, with average lows in the upper 30s.
A weather map analysis from Monday shows that temperatures in the area were roughly 10 to 15 degrees colder than normal when the snow occurred.
An unusually strong area of low pressure at high altitudes was passing over the region, which forced the air to rapidly rise and cool, enabling the exceptionally rare snowfall.
The snow in the mountains adjacent to Ain Sefra was visible from NASA’s LandSat 7 satellite on December 19. The scene below is from southwest of Ain Sefra:
Below find more photos of the desert snow from Bouchetata:
More from the Capital Weather Gang