It's raining ideas in the UAE!

The UAE is so naturally adverse to rain that one of the world's leading cloud-seeding scientists refused to believe he could create even artificial precipitation in the desert country. Seventeen years later he is still here and is planning a man-made mountain to dramatically change the country’s weather.
It's raining ideas in the UAE!
By Yasmin Al Heialy
Fri 06 May 2016 12:06 AM

When American scientist Roelof Bruintjes received a phone call from the UAE in 1999, asking him to help the dry country create rain, his response was instant: “I told them it’s a desert, there are no clouds and I can’t do anything for you.”

Seventeen years later and he is leading a programme experimenting with the concept of building a man-made mountain designed to enhance the country’s rainfall.

In the intervening years, he has helped create a successful cloud-seeding programme that has seen significant changes to the UAE’s rainfall and raised the eyebrows of many residents unaccustomed to such wet weather in the desert.

The artificial mountain experiment has received an initial $400,000 in funding and is in its first phase – essentially to assess its potential impact on the weather. Bruintjes is leading a team of experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), with some early results expected by the end of the summer.

“Building a mountain is not a simple thing,” Bruintjes says, stating the obvious. “We are still busy finalising assimilation, so we are doing a spread of all kinds of heights, widths and locations [as we simultaneously] look at the local climatology.”

Mountains force air to rise, creating clouds ideal for producing natural rain, Bruintjes explains. They significantly influence global and regional climates and weather conditions. By intercepting the global circulation of air, mountains have a decisive effect on wind, precipitation and temperature patterns, according to a report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

“If [the project] is too expensive for [the government], logically the project won’t go through, but this gives them an idea of what kind of alternatives there are for the long-term future,” Bruintjes says. “If it goes through, the second phase would be to go to an engineering company and decide whether it is possible or not.”

The coming summer is also expected to see an increase in cloud-seeding activity, with a decent number of suitable clouds forecast.

“I believe this summer will be more positive than ever,” National Center of Meteorology & Seismology (NCMS) meteorologist Sufian Farrah tells Arabian Business.

Already this year, 75 cloud-seeding operations have taken place - almost four times more than during the same period in 2015. Last year, a total of 186 missions were sent to seed clouds in the UAE, with each aircraft taking about three hours to target five to six clouds at a cost of $3,000 per operation.

Each cloud-seeding operation targets five to six clouds.

As operations increase, so does rainfall. Exactly how much additional rain has fallen as a result of cloud-seeding is difficult to measure. On March 9, 287 millimetres of rainfall was recorded in 24 hours in an area between Dubai and Al Ain, the highest level since official records began in 1977.

The UAE has also launched a $5m, five-year Rain Enhancement Research Programme to attract research in the field and new designs and instrumentation for seeding methodologies. Bruintjes is one of the panellists on the scientific team evaluating proposals.

Three teams from Japan, Germany and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology shared the first cycle of funding, announced in January. The second round of proposals are currently open.

The UAE’s rain enhancement operations have come a long way from Bruintjes’ initial conversations. He tells Arabian Business that he was convinced to at least view the country, and was surprised to see more clouds than expected.

But it still had little technology to measure even the rainfall that it was receiving. Bruintjes spent the next four years helping to generate collaboration between the UAE’s Department of Atmospheric Research, the NCAR and the US space agency NASA. The American institutions, both well established, provided advanced equipment required to make certain measurements needed before cloud-seeding operations could even be considered, and installed weather radars across the country.

“Through this collaboration, we studied the chemical and physical aspects of the clouds, which also included the implementation of several operations,” Farrah recalls.

Bruintjes adds: “Throughout those years, we found out there are a lot of dust particles, but with the oil industry, many of the dusts are coated with salts, which are good for big water drops [in the clouds].”

Today, NCMS has a total of six pilots and six Beechcraft King Air c90 aircrafts for the cloud-seeding projects, which are used in conjunction with weather radars. The process involves flying into the base of five to six targeted clouds and then the plane’s flares release potassium chloride, sodium chloride and magnesium into the clouds. Potassium and sodium allow water vapour in the clouds to form droplets heavy enough to fall as rain, usually 20 minutes later. The amount of rainfall depends on the size of the clouds and air pressure. 

“We do not create rain, we enhance it,” says Farrah, adding that the targeted clouds are already moist. During winter, clouding-seeding operations are scattered throughout the seven emirates, however, in the summer the planes are mostly diverted to the eastern regions of the country, including Khorfakkan, Masafi and Fujairah, due to the clouds formed by the condensation of water vapour in rising and moist air.

The UAE currently has 73 automated airport weather stations (AWOS) to measure all weather parameters distributed strategically across the country, plus six weather radars and one upper air station.

Clouds are injected with chemicals that help turn water vapour into rain drops.

Cloud-seeding is still in its infancy in the UAE, but meteorologists hope it could help the country reduce its reliance on desalination, or at least the need for more desalination plants on top of the six existing ones.

“[Cloud-seeding] is much cheaper than desalination plants,” Farrah says, adding that desalinating one cubic metre of water from the sea costs $60, whereas the same amount of water extracted through cloud-seeding costs just $1.

The potential of cloud-seeding were first discovered in 1946 when two scientists from General Electric (GE) discovered via laboratory trials that rainfall occurs when super-cooled droplets of water, usually liquid in temperatures below the freezing point of zero, form ice crystals, and become too heavy to be suspended in the air. 

Ever since its creation, cloud-seeding has been controversial. Though the science behind it seems almost magical, the technique is far from natural and can be almost uncomfortable for some to know the rain pouring over them was at least somewhat aided by man. However, no negative consequences have been shown to be associated with cloud-seeding. Silver iodide, used to seed clouds, in large amounts can be harmful, but the concentrations found in liquids brought down from seeding are almost undetectable. The pros of gaining natural water unquestionably outweighs the non-existent cons, for now.

Whether in summer or winter, moist clouds are not always efficient at producing precipitation even with the help of seeding. It is also difficult to decisively determine whether a cloud-seeding operation causes rainfall without knowing what would have naturally occurred otherwise. However, despite the lack of consistent and concrete evidence to support its full effectiveness and the uncertainty of knowing just how well it works, many countries continue to heavily invest in the science.

Fifty-two countries had active cloud-seeding operations last year, 11 percent more than in 2013, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The largest weather modification system in the world is in China, where there have been some drastic effects.

In February 2009, Beijing claimed its earliest snowfall since 1987, thanks to cloud-seeding after a four-month drought. Artificially-induced snow that lasted three days led to the closure of 12 main roads.

Meteorologist Sufian Farrah.

Cloud-seeding was also used in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games to help clear air pollution. China spent $150m on a single regional rain enhancement programme in 2011, compared to the US’s annual budget of approximately $15m.

China reportedly plans to use cloud-seeding to boost precipitation by more than 60 billion cubic metres of additional rain each year within the next four years. In 2013, it created 50 billion tonnes of artificial rain a year, compared to an average 36 billion tonnes a year from 1999 to 2006.

Cloud-seeding also has been successfully used in India, although not sufficiently to prevent several severe and fatal droughts.

Malaysia, meanwhile has been carrying out cloud-seeding operations twice daily since 2015, costing a total of $1.2m, and has reportedly said it would increase operations during dry spells.

With water shortages taking hold across the world, there is only likely to be an increasing emphasis on cloud-seeding. Whether or not it will be the magic solution, or part thereof, remains to be seen.

But with millions of dollars in research behind them, Bruintjes and his team in the UAE could push the science into new horizons. Much like the weather, the long-term forecast is difficult to predict.

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.