What’s the secret behind artificial rain in Dubai

The United Arab Emirates is already living in the future, with technological solutions battling the harsh environment of the Arabian Peninsula. However, did the recent images of a drowning Dubai show that something went wrong?

One of the world’s driest places was submerged into chaos this week as severe flooding hit the desert city. Heavy rain disrupted flights, drowned vehicles, and blocked highways as rainwater gushed through the ceilings of shopping malls and caused significant damage across the United Arab Emirates

The 24-hour volume of rain on Tuesday was the country’s largest in 75 years. Rains are rare in the UAE and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, which are usually characterised by high air temperatures soaring above 50C during the summer months.

Dubai has been known for its innovations and high-technology solutions in adapting and expanding. The city employs a massive Internet of Things (IoT) network, high adoption of disruptive technologies such as AI and blockchain, and advances in robotics that help to optimize the usage of energy and water and enhance public services.

The country faces a stark scarcity of water resources to sustain its growth. As per the World Resource Institute, the country ranks as one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

The current storm sparked the discussion of what is to blame and whether it could be a human fault. UAE has been using a futurist-sounding technique called cloud seeding for decades to increase rainfall and boost its water supplies.

While experiments with artificial rain in the past have already caused floods in Dubai, UAE’s meteorology agency told Reuters there were no cloud seeding operations before the current storm, and experts attributed the downpour to human-caused climate change.

In the near future, technological advances will continue to shape the natural environment, so let’s take a look at this futuristic technique that brings rain to the desert.

Dubai flood
Flooding in Dubai on November 9, 2019 | Source: Shutterstock

What is cloud seeding?

Cloud seeding is a form of weather alteration that seeks to increase the amount of rain or snow or to prevent rainfall from occurring in the following days. Scientists worldwide have been experimenting with this technology since the 1940s.

Artificial rain is caused by the injection of salts like silver iodide, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride into the clouds, either by on-ground machinery or drones. The salts act as catalysts to combine moisture in the clouds, which later convert into ice crystals that melt while falling and cause rainfall.

Dubai flood 2020
Flooding in Dubai on January 11th, 2020 | Source: Shutterstock

Another technique is using electric charges from the drones flying at low altitudes. The science behind this is the greater the difference in charges among the droplets within the cloud, the stronger their attraction to one another becomes. The electric emissions into the air can stimulate the merging of droplets within clouds, ultimately leading to rain formation.

However, cloud seeding technology is not making miracles in a cloudless sky. Salt particles must be injected into an already-formed cloud that contains moisture to start the rain and increase its load. UAE’s meteorology agency is constantly monitoring the sky to spot a proper cloud and instruct pilots on starting the seeding mission.

A typical cloud seeding operation lasts four hours, targets 5-6 clouds, and would amount to approximately $3,000.

Cloud seeding has been controversial, as sprayed particles increase the amount of micro-pollutants in the atmosphere, which could eventually lead to respiratory illnesses in humans. Also, the UAE cities' infrastructure is not tailored for heavy rains.

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