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Snow Falls in the Sahara for the First Time Since 1979

A cold snap in the Algerian city of Ain Sefra led to a snowfall that covered the area’s distinctive orange dunes

This image from the Landsat 7 satellite depicts snow near the border of Morocco and Algeria, south of the city of Bouarfa and southwest of Ain Sefra. ( Joshua Stevens at NASA Earth Observatory)
smithsonian.com

Earlier this week, photos of orange sand dunes dusted in snow outside the Algerian city of Ain Sefra began circulating the internet. While the images are beautiful, they also echo a set of images that swept social media in 2013, when a freak snowstorms struck Syria, Israel and Egypt. But all of the images proved to be false.

The photos from Ain Sefra, however, taken by local amateur photographer Karim Bouchetata are genuine. “Everyone was stunned to see snow falling in the desert, it is such a rare occurrence,” Bouchetata tells Jon Sharman at The Independent. “It looked amazing as the snow settled on the sand and made a great set of photos. The snow stayed for about a day and has now melted away.”

Sharman reports that the last time measurable snow fell on the town tucked into the edge of the Atlas Mountains at the northern edge of the Sahara was 1979. That storm lasted about half an hour and stalled traffic. According to George Dvorsky at Gizmodo, the city saw minor dustings of snow in 2005 and 2012.

So why is it snowing in the Sahara, one of the hottest and driest regions in the world? According to Snopes.com, it has to do with Ain Sefra’s unique location. Freezing temperatures are not unusual in the region, which is at the juncture between the desert and the Atlas Mountains, a range tall and cold enough to host a ski resort. While temperatures are exceedingly hot in the summer, they often dip into freezing in December and January.

Just because a place is hot for part of the year doesn’t mean it's immune to cold temperatures or even snow. Even Death Valley in California has seen snow before. The region holds the record for the hottest surface temperature ever recorded on Earth, clocking in at 134 degrees in 1913. According to WGN’s weather team it saw snow flurries in 1949, 1974 and possibly 1922. In 2011, Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, experienced a significant snowfall when a cold front from Antarctica made a rare trip over the Andes Mountains.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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