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UAE backs use of robotic planes to charge fog clouds in arid areas

Cloud seeing drones UAE National Centre for Meteorology
Research into properties of clouds and rainfall may help avoid conflict over water and provide enough water for a growing global population
  • Planes shoot flares into clouds to draw moisture from the air
  • UAE receives only a 10th of the global average of annual rainfall.

The UAE is continuing its support for scientific experiments involving robotic, unmanned aircraft releasing electric charges into fog clouds, in a bid to encourage more rainfall in the skies above the emirates.

Real-world ‘cloud seeding’ experiments conducted by the UK’s University of Reading, and supported by the UAE’s National Centre for Meteorology, confirmed that releasing electric charges led to detectable changes in the size and number of fog droplets.

The results have been recently published in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters.

University of Reading meteorologists Giles Harrison, Maarten Ambaum and Keri Nicoll were awarded a $1.5 million research grant from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science in 2017 to investigate the electrical aspects of rainfall.

The UK university’s research is one of several international collaborations underpinning the UAE’s cloud seeding programme, which has established ties with 1,800 researchers from over 800 institutions in 70 countries. 

New methods are being tested to improve the efficiency of the process including drones sent up to modify the size of electrical charges in the clouds and make water droplets fall faster, and another project deploying 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.

Some 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, according to the United Nations. Research into the properties of clouds and rainfall could, therefore, help avoid conflict over water, mitigate against using energy-intensive techniques to desalinate seawater and provide enough water for a growing global population.

Fieldwork undertaken by the project team has studied desert rainfall and the effects of sea breezes in the Gulf and sent specially instrumented weather balloons through the fogs of Abu Dhabi.

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 number 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,” Paul Connolly, professor of atmospheric physics in the School of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Manchester. 

These climate risks, which require further research to quantify, need to be measured against the dangers posed by water scarcity, according to Katja Friedrich, associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. She believes cloud seeding has a place in larger plans to conserve water, alongside other methods. 

She said: “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.”

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