How the UAE is making it rain
It is often said that the next wars will be fought over water rather than oil. But what if scientists finally found a reliable way of making it rain? What if fresh water could be made to fall over arid desert lands? And what if that research was happening now, high above the mountains of the UAE? That would be pretty special, right?
A blurry monitor screen shows chief pilot Colin Bundy tightening his seat belt as he confirms his plane’s position over the radio. As the twin-engine King Air C90 pitches and shudders in the violent updraft from the surrounding cumulus cloud formation, Bundy’s image jolts as the camera operator sitting next to him momentarily loses his grip. Back at base, at Abu Dhabi’s National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS), Omar Ahmed Al Yazeedi orders the crew to ignite their wing-mounted particle flares. It’s the beginning of yet another cloud-seeding mission, one of nearly 200 the NCMS flies across the United Arab Emirates every year in the hope of artificially increasing rainfall.
“In aviation, you try to avoid bad weather,” Al Yazeedi says. “We do the opposite; we fly directly into the heart of a thunderstorm.” The NCMS’s Director of Research, Development and Training recalls the first experiments conducted in the UAE over 10 years ago. “On one occasion the hail was so intense that it smashed the cockpit windscreen. Our pilot managed to land safely but the plane had taken a battering; there were dents everywhere.”
The technology has been refined since those early attempts. Radar is used to determine the intensity of a storm and guide pilots away from the worst of the turbulence. “As a consequence, praise to God, so far we haven’t had a single accident,” says Al Yazeedi. Clearly, seeding clouds isn’t for the faint of heart. But do the rewards justify the dangers?
The UAE has a rapidly growing economy and very little water to support it. According to the NCMS, with an average of 550 litres of water consumed every day by each man, woman and child, the country has the fourth highest demand for fresh water in the world. It’s little wonder, therefore, that the government is aggressively pursuing alternative solutions like cloud seeding, said to be up to 30 times cheaper than desalination. The downside is, nobody knows if it actually works. And even if it does prove successful, there are serious questions over how other countries might one day use this technology.
Whether human beings have any control over the weather at all has long been the subject of much debate. In AD75, Plutarch wrote that “…rain generally falls after great battles… be it that moist and heavy evaporations, steaming forth from the blood and corruption, thicken the air.” Over 17 centuries later, Napoleon used to order his artillery to fire into the skies in the belief that loud sounds and dust particles would disrupt the “atmospheric equilibrium” and surprise the enemy with a disabling deluge.
Despite the lack of proof, the Concussion Theory of Rainmaking, which arose in the wake of the French dictator’s tactics was adopted by US Congress. In 1891 it engaged retired Brigadier General Robert Dyrenforth to conduct a series of rain-making experiments in the San Antonio area of Texas. Using artillery, balloons and kites to launch explosives, his sole accomplishment was the instigation of several raging prairie fires, which promptly earned him the moniker, Dry-Henceforth.
An ionisation tower array installed by Swiss company Meteo Systems
It wasn’t until the 1940s that scientists made any real progress with creating artificial precipitation. In the US, Irving Langmuir (winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and his assistant Vincent Schaefer were researching cloud physics and ice nuclei while working at General Electric. One hot day in the summer of 1946, during experiments at Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire, Schaefer found that his prototype refrigerator wasn’t cold enough for the tests he wanted to run. Determined to get on with his work, he decided to speed things up and placed a lump of dry ice at the bottom of the cold box. Creating a cloud with his breath he observed a bluish haze that turned into countless microscopic ice crystals, creating a dazzling effect in the strobe-lit chamber. The sudden change in temperature had spontaneously produced ice nuclei.
On November 13, 1946, Schaefer and his pilot Curtis Talbot took off from New York’s Schenectady airport and, after a 60-mile easterly chase, scattered six pounds of dry ice in “a fleecy cloud four miles long that was floating over nearby Massachusetts,” as Time reported. “Almost at once, the cloud, which had been drifting along peacefully, begun to writhe as if in torment. White pustules rose from its surface. In five minutes the whole thing melted away, leaving a thin wraith of snow.” According to Schaefer’s lab notebook, “while still in the cloud, as we saw the glinting crystals all over, I turned to Curt and we shook hands as I said, ‘We did it!’”
One drawback, however, was that the dry ice fell too fast through the clouds and affected the water vapour inside only briefly. Another assistant of Langmuir’s, Bernard Vonnegut (who also happened to be the brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) solved the problem when he “seeded” clouds with silver iodide particles that would stay airborne. “Here, apparently, was a tool of almost miraculous potency,” wrote Time. Langmuir calculated that pure silver iodide was so powerful that only 200 pounds of the substance would be enough to seed Earth’s entire atmosphere (Kurt Vonnegut, who worked in General Electric’s advertising department in the early 1950s, would later fictionalise the discovery in Cat’s Cradle, where a substance called Ice-Nine instantly freezes all water on Earth).
Over half a century later, the technology has evolved but the basic principles remain unchanged: water particles collide, merge and grow. Scientists distinguish “warm” (above 0ºC) and “cold” clouds (below 0ºC) and use different seeding chemicals accordingly. With cold clouds, silver iodide and liquid propane are the most common agents, whereas warm clouds require hygroscopic salt particles — the technique used across the UAE.
But the country’s arid climate, combined with its soaring demand for fresh water, has led scientists to experiment with even more futuristic technologies. During the summer of 2010, it was reported that Swiss company Meteo Systems had created rainstorms out of blue skies using “ionisation towers” — umbrella-shaped structures that generated plumes of negatively charged particles said to promote cloud formation. The UK’s Daily Mail spoke of “scientists working secretly for the United Arab Emirates,” producing 52 thunderstorms over Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain region. However, the paper could only refer to a company video to substantiate its claims. In 2011, National Geographic News reported that Meteo was using “arrays of 33-foot (10-metre) electric towers” that “supercharged” clouds, much to the disbelief of international weather experts. Fox News added that “secrecy seems to be the hallmark of [the] company, which requires a password merely for access to their [web] site.”
The reality is less sensational. Websites run by Meteo Systems and its owner (Singapore-based clean energy investors Sindicatum) openly provide data, descriptions and photos of the UAE ionisation trials and even name the technology’s investment budget to date — $18 million. “During the summer of 2010, Meteo Systems carried out privately funded trials in the Al Ain region of Abu Dhabi using its WeatherTec system,” a company spokesman, who declined to be named, tells Esquire. “Over the period of the trial there were a total of 61 rain events [producing] approximately 300 million cubic metres of water. Independent analysis of data (including radar data provided by the UAE’s National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology NCMS) suggests […] that the technology influenced at least eight rainfall events that yielded 14 million cubic metres of rain […] This is not to imply that Meteo caused this rain but only that the conditions were suitable for our system to influence these cloud systems.”
Modified sensors on the plane wing
If Meteo Systems’ own assessment is cautious, experts on the ground are downright incredulous. “Despite good amounts of rain that year, we cannot confirm that this technology had anything to do with it,” says Sufian Farrah, a meteorologist at Abu Dhabi’s NMCS. He points to Newton’s second law, which talks about the conservation of energy. “Cloud formation requires enormous amounts of energy, which you cannot generate with a low-power electric cathode. You can’t just plug in some box and expect clouds to appear.” Indeed, Meteo Systems’ own data rates each towers’ output at 500W — around a sixth of an electric kettle.
Farrah says he consulted a number of scientific centres around the world, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to confirm his assumption. “They all said it would be very difficult to succeed with this technology. Essentially, you’re playing games in the open atmosphere.”
That’s not to say they haven’t attempted similar experiments. “We’ve had many trials of different systems over the years in the UAE,” he says. “In 2007, a Russian magnetics specialist called Yuri Saveliev carried out a year-long experiment on Abu Dhabi’s Al Reem Island. His approach was to spray microscopic sea water particles from 35-metre-high towers to increase moisture levels. The moist air would then pass through a 30 x 40 metre cathode array to produce ions that were supposed to increase cloud formation and create rain. Again, none of this could be proved.”
Faced with a long queue of inventors keen to capitalise on the UAE’s need for more rain, Farrah and his colleagues remain philosophical. “We’ve recently had an offer from a company who claimed they could literally flood Abu Dhabi with rain. When we asked how their technology was supposed to work they said they couldn’t tell us because ‘someone might use it in warfare’,” he smiles. “Essentially, all these supposed techniques are just scientific rumour.”
The use of weather modification to destroy or indeed repair the planet is taken seriously by many. Its potential application as an instrument of war is something that Dr James Lee, an Adjunct Professor at the American University in Washington DC has investigated. He is also the author of Climate Change and Armed Conflict: Hot and Cold Wars and has recently advised the UK parliament on cloud seeding.
“The line between peaceful and hostile uses of weather modification is extremely thin,” Lee says. “One country in the midst of a severe humanitarian emergency may perceive cloud seeding as a benevolent act. But where people are facing droughts and relations with their neighbours are already bad, all of a sudden somebody might say ‘they’re stealing our rain.’ Countries have gone to war over less.”
The scenario Lee describes isn’t as outlandish as it seems. Most of the Arab world falls under the classification of “extreme water scarcity” as defined by the United Nations. Add to this the exponential population growth of countries like Syria, Egypt and Yemen (the latter is expected to double its current population by 2050 to over 52 million) and it’s easy to see how water stress can rapidly turn into armed conflict. There have been plenty of precedents. According to the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, the past half century has witnessed more than 500 conflict situations over water worldwide. Over 100 events have involved violence and more than 20 of these took place in the MENA region.
For Lee, this shows how weather modification, rather than alleviating need, can actually aggravate water conflict. He has also examined how perceptions of the technology’s impact can differ. “Soviet air force pilots seeded clouds over Belarus after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 to prevent radioactive clouds from reaching major populated areas,” he continues. “While Moscow saw benefit, Belarus surely did not.”
Lee points to the 1977 Environmental Modification (ENMOD) Treaty, which supposedly bans weather-changing activities for the purposes of inducing damage or destruction. It resulted in part from “Operation Popeye”, a cloud-seeding exercise by the US military to disrupt enemy supply convoys during the Vietnam War that also resulted in widespread failed harvests. Despite being ratified by 76 countries, it seems doubtful that ENMOD will prevent the use of cloud seeding by the military. In 1996, the US Air Force gave details of just such a scenario in their report Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025. The study looks at artificial deluges by releasing carbon black dust, the making and dispersal of fog, as well as the modification of storms to cause aviation hazards for opponents.
On one occasion the hail was so intense that it smashed the cockpit windscreen
But could it also help save the planet?
The suggested use of cloud seeding in climate engineering has been seen as a potential silver bullet by some. At Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, researchers are looking at the various proposals. “Cloud brightening is being considered as a measure to counter global warming — the idea is to make marine clouds reflect more light by creating more droplets from the same amount of water vapour,” says Dr Hauke Schmidt, the institute’s expert on geo-engineering. “Other suggestions include installing arrays of mirrors in space or injecting sulphates into the lower stratosphere to mimic the effects of volcanic eruptions,” he says.
He is quick to point out, however, that they are a long way from any magic solutions to the planet’s ills. “A potential side effect of geo-engineering in general is that you will never be able to reconstruct our climate as it used to be,” says Dr Schmidt. “Even if you can slow down global warming, you would very likely change regional precipitation patterns drastically. You’d also have to commit to the technology — probably for centuries — otherwise global warming would quickly catch up,” he says.
Of more immediate concern, perhaps, is the potential toxicity of chemicals and the wider environmental impact, voiced by some scientists as well as communities at the receiving end of seeding operations. Hans Ahlness is president-elect of the Utah-based US Weather Modification Association. He is keen to pre-empt what he sees as misconceptions about silver iodide. “The substance is very inert to the point of being insoluble and doesn’t break down into toxic silver and other substances in the environment,” he says. “What’s more, we use extremely small quantities. A typical silver iodide flare of 100 grams only contains 10 grams of the active ingredient. Studies of the Wyoming cloud-seeding programme have confirmed that the concentration in the soil is far lower than the silver that occurs naturally.”
But at California’s Agricultural Defence Coalition (ADC), campaigners remain unconvinced. Their website cites a study by the University of California, Berkeley which rates silver iodide as “a Class C, non-soluble, inorganic, hazardous chemical that pollutes water and soil. It has been found to be highly toxic to fish, livestock and humans.” ADC campaigner Rosalind Peterson also takes issue with the lack of research. “The impact on our soil and water is little understood,” says the former state crop-loss adjuster. “We also don’t know how many miles from the seeding area the research should be done because it’s hard to know how far the chemicals travel.”
Peterson is also worried about using cloud seeding in combination with “weather derivatives”, a relatively recent tool investment banks employ to reduce the risk bad weather poses to agriculture funds. “It’s another way for companies in the know to hedge-bet and make profits on their activities,” she says. “It’s like insider trading.”
Ultimately, she says, researchers need to be aware of the consequences of their actions. “There seems to be a certain disregard for the concerns of people on the ground who are directly affected by those schemes.”
The UAE’s weapon of choice against drought, a King Air C90, being prepared for another cloud seeding mission, one of nearly 200 flown every year
And yet the research goes on, because the prize for successfully altering weather patterns is too great to ignore. It is often said that the next wars will be fought over access to fresh water, and few places are as arid as the Middle East. The UAE in particular is in trouble, according to the UN. Its 2013 Water Governance in the Arab Region report highlights how the country is struggling. As its 10,000 year-old groundwater supplies are running dry, demand for desalinated water in Abu Dhabi alone is projected to outstrip supply by 100 million litres per year by 2023. Imagine if this could be solved via technology.
Zev Levin is a Helmholtz International Fellow at the Energy, Environment and Water Research Centre of Cyprus. He is also cautiously optimistic about the prospects of cloud seeding to address the world’s water shortages. “Desalination, for example, is foolproof but it’s also expensive, at 50 to 60 cents [US] per cubic metre of fresh water, and produces side effects for the environment, such as a high saline discharge.”
He points to cloud-seeding programmes in the Middle East that cost an equivalent of two cents per cubic metre — a huge saving on desalination. “If you can prove that it works, it’s the cheapest solution,” he says. “It also has other advantages, such as spreading the water over the fields, which avoids the need for expensive irrigation systems. The disadvantage is that it cannot be guaranteed to work when and where you want it to.”
Regardless of the uncertainties, more than 150 cloud-seeding programmes are currently taking place in 37 countries, according to National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado. Roelof Bruintjes, who supervised the original UAE seeding experiments, is the head of the centre’s weather modification programme and chair of the World Meteorological Association’s expert committee on the subject. “Water, or the lack of it, is one of the big issues we’re facing this century,” he says. “If we could quantify the effects of clouds seeding, it would be a major step forward. An average cumulus cloud can produce as much water as the flow of a major river like the Colorado. If you take an area with 10 millimetres of rainfall, a simple back-of-an-envelope calculation shows that a mere 10 percent more rain would result in an additional one million litres per square kilometre — a tremendous amount.”
And this is exactly why the UAE continues to fund operations. After a feasibility study in the early 2000s, carried out with the help of scientists from around the globe, seeding operations began in 2006. “We routinely fly more than 160 missions a year,” the NCMS’s Omar Al Yazeedi says. “Thanks to the foresight of the authorities, we now have four aircraft with our own pilots, a radar network and over 60 weather stations at our disposal. We mostly seed with salt particles in the Eastern mountain ranges on the border with Oman to raise levels in aquifers and reservoirs but we also operate over the cities. As soon as likely cloud formations appear, we go out there. We seed whenever we get the chance.”
During an average four-hour operation, up to 24 clouds can be seeded at a cost of around $5,000. If proven effective, this would compare well with desalination where the cost of the plant alone can exceed $850 million. Given that a medium-sized cloud holds over 400 million litres, one seeding operation resulting in 10 percent more rain could yield $100,000-worth of water.
Al Yazeedi is conscious, however, of the heavy burden of proof. “The science is confirmed. There are many studies from around the world that show that seeding leads to rain enhancement,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is still no way to accurately measure the difference. The seeded cloud might have released rain anyway.” Al Yazeedi is hopeful that computer analysis conducted by Colorado’s NCAR will clear up the matter for good. “This may be the evidence we’re looking for,” he says.
Whether scientists manage to show that the technique really works or not seems of little importance. Human beings like the easy way out and the mere possibility that water might fall from the heavens at our beckoning is just too tempting. It looks like cloud seeding is here to stay.