Science, Tech & Environment

London commuters deal with a new hardship — clouds of African dust

London dust.jpg

A cyclist wears a mask as he rides near Buckingham Palace in London April 2, 2014. Britain's Meteorological Office forecast that London would be affected by smog this week, caused by powerful dust storms and strong winds in the Sahara.


Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Living and commuting in any big city can be stressful. But if you live in London, you probably don't expect to have to deal with clouds of Saharan dust on your way to work.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

But that's what many Londoners woke up to this morning — reddish dust from Africa covering large parts of Britain.

Robert Elms, the host of a BBC London lunch time radio call-in show, said the dust has, unsurprisingly, been a big topic of discussion.

Elms said he discovered a thick layer of dust on his car in the morning. At first he thought it was from a local construction project, but then he opened up the phone lines.

"I just said, 'Did anyone else have dust on their car this morning?' And of course we got inundated with calls of people saying, 'Yeah, it was like I was living in a desert. I'd woken up somewhere in the Sahara,'" Elms added.

Air pollution was forecast to reach “high” levels across a broad stretch of middle England and Wales, a dirty cocktail of pollutants in the air including Saharan dust, car fumes and European industrial emissions. People with heart or lung problems were warned not to exercise outdoors.

After work, Elms went out for a bicycle ride. "You could certainly feel [the dust] and you could breathe it. I was gasping for air and you could sort of taste this stuff in the air, really. The air tasted different and felt a bit different and certainly stung your eyes and your throat... it tasted like chalk. Or it tasted like dust, I guess."

A Saharan dust storm is not unheard of in London; it has happened before. It requires a host of specific weather conditions, a big dust storm in the Sahara combined with strong north-western winds to deliver the dust to the United Kingdom.

"It's just one of those freak things that you think, isn't nature kind of fabulous, that somehow we've got a little bit of Africa coming to us," said Elms.

The Saharan dust cloud over London inspired us to pull together a playlist of sand-themed tunes. Take a listen and let us know what songs we missed in the comments.