How Often Does it Snow in the Sahara Desert?

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While snow is present in Africa at very high elevations, snow in the Sahara Desert is a very rare event.  

The Sahara Desert is an extremely hot and arid region.  An area about 3,600,000 square miles (9,200,000 square kilometers), the desert is about the size of the United States and stretches across much of North Africa.  

Winter is the season when any rainfall might fall in this area.  The air above the desert is so dry, that often rain doesn’t reach the ground or arrives in very small quantities (Galvin, 2010).  Locations at higher elevations receive more rain (Galvin, 2010).

Significant Snowfall in the Sahara Desert

There have been three recorded episodes of significant snowfall.  The first was recorded in 1979, the second in December of 2016, and the third most recently on January 7, 2018.  

The northern Algerian town of Ain Sefra is known as the “Gateway to the Desert”, located between the Atlas Mountains and the northern edge of the Sahara.  About 35,000 people live in this town.

On January 8, 2018, about 10 to 30 centimeters (4 to 12 inches) of snow covered the desert higher elevations above 1000 meters. The snow lasted for less than a day thanks to warming temperatures.

Landsat 8 satellite image of snow covered moutaintops near Aïn Séfra in northern Algeria.  Image: NASA, public domain.
Landsat 8 satellite image of snow covered moutaintops near Aïn Séfra in northern Algeria. Image: NASA, public domain.

The 2016 snowfall was captured by Landsat 7 satellite on December 19, 2016.

Satellite image showing snow between the border of Morocco and Algeria near the town of Ain Sefra captured by Landsat 7. Image: NASA, December 19, 2016.
Satellite image showing snow between the border of Morocco and Algeria near the town of Ain Sefra captured by Landsat 7. Image: NASA, December 19, 2016.

Unfortunately, in all cases of significant snowfall, the snow quickly melted and dissipated after a few hours, returning the desert to its sandy landscape.

2018 Sahara Desert Snow Video

The recent January 7 2018 snowfall was captured by local photographer Karim Bouchetata (who also captured imagery of the snowfall in 2016):

References

Carlowicz, M. (2016, December 22). Rare snow in the African desert. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/89302/rare-snow-in-the-african-desert

Carlowicz, M. (2018, January 13). A dusting of white in the Sahara. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91556/a-dusting-of-white-in-the-sahara

Galvin, J. F. P. (2010). When does it snow in the desert?. Weather65(1), 10-13. https://doi.org/10.1002/wea.48

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