Orbital View of Rare Snowfall in the Sahara

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
December 26, 2016
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Orbital View of Rare Snowfall in the Sahara
Sahara Snowfall

In December 2016, snow fell in the Sahara for the first time since 1979.

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 had 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 this natural-color image of snow in North Africa on December 19, 2016. This scene shows an area near the border of Morocco and Algeria, south of the city of Bouarfa and southwest of Ain Sefra. Though the news has been dominated by snow in the Saharan city, a review of several years of satellite data suggests that snow is also pretty rare in this section of the Atlas range.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Mike Carlowicz. Larger image

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.