It’s not clouds, it’s “Harmattan”

Harmattan. This was a word unfamiliar to me until I got first-hand experience of its effects. It’s not something you can touch per se, but definitely something you can feel. According to Wikipedia:

“The Harmattan is a season in the West African subcontinent, which occurs between the end of November and the middle of March. It is characterized by the dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind, of the same name, which blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea.”

We arrived in Abidjan in mid-January, towards the end of the Harmattan season. Abidjan reminded me of Paris for this reason. “Lots of clouds,” I thought, “Just like Paris.” I was also surprised at how much fog was in the city. Sometimes it just looked a bit hazy everywhere. I started thinking it wasn’t fog and instead just terrible pollution, like the pollution you hear about in China or India. I was coughing a lot and my throat was rather irritated. I saw how much smoke was being exhausted by the old taxi cars, most of which was dark black or grey. “It’s definitely pollution,” I would think.

It wasn’t until my first blue sky that I learned of Harmattan (which sounds like “armatin” when spoken in French). My partner, Augustin, casually mentioned it. He laughed when I said that I thought it was fog or pollution.

Like Wikipedia already mentioned, Harmattan is a wind that blows towards West Africa from the Sahara Desert, and with that wind, brings a whole lot of dust. Dust. That is what was causing the “foggy” or “hazy” effects. That is what was causing the irritation in my throat. That is what causes the sky to look like that of Paris’.

This dust is so intense that each year airlines have to cancel many flights coming in and out of West Africa. In Nigeria, special landing equipment is being installed to help pilots navigate and land amongst the dusty haze. The dust can also spell trouble for farmers, notably cocoa farmers in northern Côte D’Ivoire. Arguably, stronger winds can mean an increase of disease along the meningitis belt. And of course, Harmattan is just plain annoying.

Here in Abidjan, the Harmattan is considered mild. Visibility is reduced, yes, but you can still easily see around you. Go further North or further East and visibility will start to reduce. In some places you can’t even see 10 meters in front of you!

The Harmattan is a dry and hot wind and with it brings desert-like conditions, meaning it will be hot during the day, but can get cold during the night. In some places, the temperature can drop to 9 °C (48.2 °F), but here in Abidjan it is rare that it drops below 19 °C (66.2 °F) and the record low temperature is 14.7 °C (58.5 °F). For the Abidjanaise (I.e. those hailing from Abidjan), 19 °C is COLD! I read an article from early January with people comparing Abidjan to Paris. Although, when I think of “oh, it’s cold like Paris”, I imagine wearing my heavy coat, beanie, scarf, 2 pairs of socks, long underwear and still being a bit cold. For me, 19 °C would rather mean just wearing pants with a sweater. While this temperature would be a nice Spring day in Paris, for people where the average temperature falls around 24 °C – 27°C (~76 °F – 81 °F) year round, 19°C is pretty cold. Many people here have never experienced weather colder than that. After the sun gets down, people often wear pants and jackets when it is still 24 °C out! I ask them why they wear a jacket and they all say because “it’s a bit too cold.”

Abidjan is built right on the ocean waters, with several lagoons and large ponds breaking the city in pieces. This normally creates a rather humid climate, but when the Harmattan is strong, the moisture dissipates and the dry air rides in. This effect is not totally unwelcome in Abidjan, but in other areas of West Africa, which are not always humid, it creates problems with dry skin and chapped lips, not to mention the crops, many of which die.

The winter months in West Africa is characterized by the Harmattan (see the right image) and there is only a little rain on the coastal regions that comes and clears out the dust. There was a rainstorm in Abidjan just the other day, and afterwards the skies were clear and blue, the air was moist and crisp, and fresher now that all the dust had settled. Moving into the summer months (on the left side of the image), the winds of the southwest monsoon start to blow in, and with it, the Harmattan is pushed further north and across the Atlantic Ocean.

But while there are a lot of negative effects from the wind, it plays a crucial part in worldwide weather patterns and the life cycle. As the summer wet months settle in, the various winds push and carry the dust across the Atlantic ocean, towards the Caribbean and the Amazon. And according to the Trinidad and Tobago Weather Center: “Saharan dust isn’t all bad . . . as it provides nutrients for the world’s largest oxygen producers – phytoplankton in the Atlantic Oceans and the Amazon rainforest.”

It’s pretty crazy to think that the dust I am breathing here, could one day end up in the Amazon rainforest. It’s fascinating to experience a whole new weather pattern and to think how the geography of a place can affect so many aspects on even the other side of the world. You can even track the movement of the Sahara dust from space using satellite equipment, and that is exactly what NASA and other weather agencies use to prepare the people in the Caribbean for summer dust storms. I highly recommend reading the article about Sahara Dust from the Trinidad and Tobago Weather Center and take a look at these pictures to see the Harmattan in action, here in Abidjan.

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