How Gulf countries will 'make it rain' with cloud seeding

Grey clouds in Dubai
07 September, 2021
Several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf are pouring money into a new technology straight from science fiction: cloud seeding. This approach to weather modification aims to increase precipitation, a game-changer for one of the most parched regions.

Cloud seeding, a form of weather modification designed to increase rainfall and other types of precipitation, sounds like technology straight from a space opera. In the Persian Gulf, however, several countries are fast turning science fiction into reality.

In the era of climate change, cloud seeding may give the Middle East a tool to fight back. The Gulf monarchies in particular have the financial and scientific resources necessary to pioneer cloud seeding for the region. At the same time, they will have to take into account lingering doubts about the technology’s viability.

The Desert Research Institute, one of the world’s leading research centres for cloud seeding, explains that the process “improves a cloud’s ability to produce rain or snow by artificially adding condensation nuclei to the atmosphere, providing a base for snowflakes or raindrops to form.” Aspiring rainmakers can induce precipitation with “ground-based generators or aircraft.”

In the field of cloud seeding, the United Arab Emirates emerged as a leader decades ago. In 2000, Emirati officials sought the assistance of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a research institute funded by the United States and abbreviated as “NCAR,” to study applications of cloud seeding. The project’s other participants ranged from a South African university and an official from the South African Weather Service to several American academics and companies.

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By 2007, the Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News was reporting that the UAE had expanded its research on cloud seeding to include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an American government agency better known as “NASA.”

A year later, Gulf News claimed that Emirati scientists, equipped with a top official’s aeroplane, had managed to engineer artificial rainfall over Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the UAE’s south and west. The newspaper described the experiment, an initiative meant to replenish the UAE’s groundwater, as a “thundering success.”

In 2011, The Sunday Times recounted how scientists working for the local government of Abu Dhabi had undertaken an $11 million campaign the previous summer to deploy a series of ionizers in the desert. The scientists credited the ionizers, which The Daily Mail compared to “stripped down lampshades on steel poles,” with making 50 rainstorms over the city of al-Ain.

Experts, including an official from NCAR, cast doubt on the credibility of the Emirati claims and the techniques used by Meteo Systems, the Swiss company that Abh Dhabi had enlisted for the project. Even so, the UAE remained undeterred: in 2013, it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on over 200 cloud-seeding missions. That number fell to 177 in 2016 but rose to 242 in 2018. The UAE has said that these efforts increased rainfall by 15 to 35 percent, depending on the area. The country is now experimenting with drones that induce rain via lasers.

The UAE’s aggressive investment in clouding seeding is inspiring a wider trend across the Gulf. NCAR, for its part, has researched the potential of cloud seeding in Saudi Arabia. In February 2020, the kingdom outlined plans to launch a cloud-seeding programme in the regions of Asir and al-Bahah, where Saudi scientists aim to create a 20 percent increase in rain. In a more offbeat pursuit, Qatari academics were designing solar-powered artificial clouds as far back as 2011.

Every member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council may soon employ cloud seeding. Oman, a Middle Eastern leader in the environmental movement, has been using the technology for some time. Reports from regional news agencies have raised expectations that Bahrain and Kuwait, likewise rich in fossil fuels but poor in water resources, will follow suit in the coming years.

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For all the enthusiasm about clouding seeding in the Gulf, opinions on the technology’s efficacy vary. Experts remain divided, noting that assessments of cloud seeding’s effects – such as the UAE’s statistics on a 15 to 35 percent rise in rainfall – tend to rely on correlation rather than causation.

Often, researchers have little way of knowing what role cloud seeding played in a rainstorm. Proponents of cloud seeding could cite an unexpected downpour as proof of the technology’s utility, but that spike in rainfall might just have represented a freak occurrence.

On several occasions, Emirati officials have had to deny speculation that their cloud-seeding initiatives contributed to brutal downpours, including a 2020 Wired report suggesting a connection between cloud seeding and floods that struck Dubai the previous year.

A 2021 article in The International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology indicated that cloud seeding might have caused a spike in atmospheric aerosol particles in parts of the UAE. However, most scientific literature holds that the technology has no appreciable effect on environmental or public health, clearing cloud seeding for safe, widespread use.

If the UAE and its neighbours succeed in addressing outstanding concerns about cloud seeding’s effectiveness, the technology may turn into a game-changer for the Middle East. From Libya to Yemen, countries across the Arab world suffer from water scarcity and depend on expensive desalination plants. Through projects like the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science, Gulf countries can export this cheaper, greener alternative to the rest of the region.

If cloud seeding works as well as its proponent's hope, it has a promising future in the Middle East. As the climate crisis escalates, ingenuity will become that much more necessary.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution