Water is, with no doubt, one of the most essential elements of life. If one is to give examples of the benefits of water, the list would require an article on its own. However, if the advantages of this gold mine are to be scaled to a national level, things become a tad more specific and interesting.
In a country like the UAE, water is scarce. The nation stretches 83,600 km², 80 percent of which is desert. No matter the size of a piece of land, when its majority is covered with sand, its weather will shoot up, which will then affect electricity consumption, which in turn will impact the country's economy and the environment as a whole. You see, it's a chain of reactions to a reality that can't be changed immediately; the UAE is trying its best and slowly succeeding, though.
The country may not be building cities in its deserts in hopes of reducing their space but is, for a fact, manipulating the weather.
In 2011, the GCC nation was "one of the world's top five power consumers per capita while emissions of climate-warming carbon from Emiratis [...] more than twice those of U.S. citizens," according to Reuters. The high consumption levels of electricity led to many blackouts over the span of a few years in the past. The reason for this extensive consumption? A hot, dry, and hostile weather that binds you to air conditioning units with every step you take.
This is usually when a solution comes in to save the day, except it has been present and functional since the 1990s and is only now, it seems, showing results.
How does it work and to what extent?
Rain enhancement, also known as cloud seeding, is the act of shooting salt flares into clouds to increase the probability of rain. The elements usually found in the flares are magnesium, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride.
Airplanes equipped with flares that contain salt crystals are flown above naturally formed clouds. The mineral is then fired into warm clouds that have a rising air current, known as updraft. The latter draws in the salts that then attract water particles which grow heavier and ultimately descend as rain.
For a country as dedicated and technologically prepared as the UAE, aircrafts aren't the only method used.
According to the UAE Rain Enhancement Program, founded in 2015, there are more than 60 networked weather stations in the country, "a weather radar network, and six aircraft for cloud seeding operations." The latter focus "on the mountainous areas in the north-east of the country, where cumulus clouds gather in the summer." The cloud seeding operational base can be found at Al Ain Airport, where four airplanes are always on standby in case of a cumulus cloud formation. The airport is close to a range of mountains and was chosen based on that.
Another method as well is ground generators placed on top of mountains. Once an updraft is noticed, the flares of salts are burned on the ground for the air to draw in the mineral on its way up to the clouds.
To this day, there is no available technology to precisely measure the amount of rain induced by cloud seeding. Scientists estimate the method only helps with a 30 to 35-percent chance of increased rainfall.
In 2018, 46.5 mm of rainfall was recorded in the UAE, according to the National Centre of Meteorology (NCM), despite the country having had carried 184 cloud seeding operations. In 2019, the number rose to 101.1 mm as 247 operations were undertaken.
With larger amounts of water being recorded in the country, more of it can be retained instead of evaporating as temperatures drop slightly and precipitation occurs more frequently.
Cloud seeding and its impact on the weather in the UAE
As a method, cloud seeding has been around since 1946 when a scientist, Dr. Vincent Schaefer, discovered it by mistake while experimenting with the creation of artificial clouds during his time at the U.S. General Electric company. He was "in a cloud chamber containing a supercooled liquid cloud [...] On deciding the chamber was too warm, Schaefer placed dry ice inside, and watched as water vapor formed a cloud around it – subsequently, and accidentally, discovering cloud seeding."
Little less than half a century later, the GCC country picked up the method to enhance its chances of witnessing more rain, which can lead to cooler weather and diverse sources of water. Less harsh temperatures are already taking place and not just in the UAE, as confirmed by Dr. Said Al Sami, a meteorological expert.
"There has been a significant increase in the temperature since the late 1980s, and the UAE's rain enhancement programmes are helping increase the amount of rainfall, thereby improving weather conditions in the region," he said, according to Khaleej Times.
As clouds carrying salt particles move around, the UAE's neighbors get to experience some cool air and rain. Saudi Arabia, who shares borders with the UAE, approved a plan in early 2020 to commence cloud seeding.
Both GCC countries witnessed floods and heavy rainfall in late 2019 and early 2020. Some people online blamed the UAE for expansively conducting rain enhancement operations, though a 30-percent increase in rain - which is already in small amounts - cannot lead to downpours.
"We only enhance the amount of rain; we are not creating floods. Even some clouds we avoid seeding, because it would be too dangerous for the aircraft to penetrate them," Sufian Farrah, meteorologist and cloud seeding expert at the NCM, told WIRED in an interview.