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Make it rain: UAE pins its hopes on cloud seeding

A UAE cloud seeding flight. Flares release a substance that attracts water molecules
  • Planes shoot flares into clouds to draw moisture from the air
  • Drones and AI algorithms employed to make droplets fall faster
  • Process is cheaper and consumes less energy than desalination

Condensation streaming down windows is a familiar sight in Dubai’s summer, an illusion of rain at the hottest time of year. 

The UAE’s average rainfall is extremely low in August, but in recent years there has been a rise, which some experts attribute to cloud seeding – when a dedicated fleet of planes take to the skies on a mission to draw moisture from the air.

It is complex work and results are far from guaranteed, but the technology offers one possible solution to the stark climate challenges facing the UAE, where rapid population growth is putting pressure on water supply in what is already one of the driest countries on earth. 

“The potential is huge,” said Paul Connolly, professor of atmospheric physics in the School of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Manchester. 

“Typical cloud cover over this region might be 20 percent of the sky and given some simple assumptions we can estimate that if all of the water within the clouds fell to the ground it would give us around 10 times more water per year than the average UK household consumes.”

Cloud seeding is not a new technology. Early experiments were conducted in 1946 based on the same principles as the methods used today. 

Low-flying planes shoot flares into clouds and release a substance – salt, silver iodide or dry ice, depending on the cloud type – that attracts water molecules and makes them heavy enough to fall as precipitation. 

Planes shoot flares into the clouds. Picture: National Centre of Meteorology

“You are not really producing more moisture, you are just making clouds rain,” said Katja Friedrich, associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

Gauging the percentage of rainfall resulting from cloud seeding methods is difficult, but UAE forecasters estimate that it can enhance rainfall by up to 10 to 15 percent in a turgid atmosphere and 25 percent in a clean atmosphere. 

Only certain types of cloud are suitable for seeding and the conditions must be right. As Connolly pointed out, “it is not simple to extract all of the water from the clouds.”

Drones are sent up to modify size of electrical charges in clouds and make water droplets fall

Seeding innovation with researchers from 70 countries

New methods are being tested to improve the efficiency of the process, funded by grants from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science (UAEREP), which is run by the National Centre of Meteorology. 

Drones have been sent up to modify the size of electrical charges in the clouds and make water droplets fall faster, while another project has deployed AI algorithms to improve forecasting so scientists can identify optimum conditions for cloud seeding. 

“Such efforts will help us develop innovative solutions and contribute new knowledge for the benefit of those in need of freshwater resources in water-scarce and arid regions,” said Dr Abdulla Al Mandous, director of the National Centre of Meteorology, in June.

International collaboration underpins the UAE’s cloud seeding programme, which has established ties with 1,800 researchers from over 800 institutions in 70 countries. 

“The programme’s role as a global research hub has allowed it to draw on a wide range of scientific and technical expertise,” Alya Al Mazrouei, director of the UAEREP, told AGBI.

“As water security is an essential element of national security, there is an increasing imperative for countries to strengthen their water resilience by promoting research and development, investment in new technologies, more efficient resource conservation, and effective international partnerships.”

The most water-stressed countries on earth

The UAE receives only around 100mm of rain per year, a 10th of the global average. 

In 2019, the country was ranked 10th out of 17 countries worldwide facing “extremely high water stress” by the Water Resources Institute, alongside other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, at No 8, and Qatar, which was named the most water-stressed country on earth.

The consequences are bleak, according to Dr Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the institute, with “food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability,” threatening the region. 

Almost half of the world’s population may face water stress by 2050, according to the UN, and the UAE is among those most at risk, with vital groundwater sources severely depleted. 

Desalination – converting seawater into drinking water – is one solution and the UAE recently announced plans to build three reservoirs at a cost of $150 million to increase its storage capacity for treated water. 

But the method is expensive, costing up to 30 times as much as cloud seeding, not to mention the high energy use and negative environmental impacts of the process.

There are questions around the environmental consequences of cloud seeding too, with concerns over the potential disruption of natural weather patterns. 

“If we remove water from the clouds in this way, they become less reflective of sunlight and have less of a cooling effect, therefore widespread implementation could result in further climate warming,” Connolly said. 

Weighing the benefits

These climate risks, which require further research to quantify, need to be measured against the dangers posed by water scarcity, according to Friedrich, who believes cloud seeding has a place in larger plans to conserve water, alongside other methods. 

“The impact of water shortage can be enormous, destroying economies and even putting people at risk so you need to weigh this against the impacts of cloud seeding, which I think are much less compared to the impacts of climate change.”

Gulf countries are investing more and more in the method, with the UAE running 184 missions in 2018, 247 in 2019 and 299 in 2021. 

So far this year, the country has conducted 81 airborne cloud seeding operations, deploying 2,068 airborne flares between January and June. 

Saudi Arabia launched the first phase of a new programme to implement the method earlier this year with plans for a second covering the Asir, Al Baha and Taif regions, while Oman has been conducting cloud seeding missions for some time. Kuwait may soon follow suit.

But the UAE remains the regional pioneer, driven by the necessity to hydrate its booming cities and protect a rapidly growing population from water scarcity. After launching its cloud seeding programme in the 1990s and expanding it significantly, the UAE can now draw on more than 20 years of experience.

It is funnelling millions of dollars into research with UAEREP grants of up to $1.5 million available for scientists working on rain enhancement technology that could benefit the region.

“We are working hard to build on the great innovative advances we have already made and harness new scientific and technical ingenuity that will drive creative water solutions,” said Al Mazrouei. 

“We have already made real progress in enhancing and further developing capacity in the field both locally and globally, while encouraging global research collaborations that could lead to new advances in this important field.”

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