UAE to carry out hundreds of cloud-seeding missions in 2024 to tackle water scarcity

From shooting hygroscopic salt flares into the clouds to deploying unmanned aerial vehicles, the country uses a variety of methods to force rainfall and thereby ensure water security

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Meteorological experts are expected to carry out as many as 300 cloud-seeding missions across the United Arab Emirates in 2024 to encourage rainfall and tackle water scarcity.

The UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science – National Center of Meteorology (UAEREP-NCM) – the task force behind the country’s cloud-seeding program – told Al Arabiya English that the UAE, located in one of the hottest and most arid regions on earth, has been leading the effort to seed clouds and increase precipitation for more than 23 years.

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An inside view of the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)
An inside view of the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)

In the UAE, the confluence of climate change impacts and a burgeoning population has intensified the pressure on water resources. This escalating demand has propelled the UAE, traditionally dependent on desalination plants utilizing seawater, into a critical juncture.

Rising global temperatures and shifting weather patterns have exacerbated water scarcity issues, placing additional strain on the UAE's already limited freshwater sources. As the population continues to grow, the urgency to address the mounting water demands has become more pronounced.

“The UAE carries out nearly 300 cloud-seeding missions each year, and the frequency can vary based on factors such as weather patterns, cloud availability, and climatic conditions,” an NCM official told Al Arabiya English, adding a “roughly” similar number of missions is likely to be carried out in 2024, depending on the availability of “amenable clouds.”

‘Optimizing rain enhancement strategies’

“The NCM analyzes these variables to make informed decisions on when and how often cloud-seeding operations should take place throughout the year. The goal is to optimize the effectiveness of rain enhancement strategies for the benefit of water security in the UAE and other arid and semi-arid regions,” the official said.

Cloud seeding has shown promising results in boosting annual rainfall, with statistical randomization experiments indicating significant enhancements, said the NCM official. In a turbid atmosphere, cloud seeding demonstrated the potential to increase precipitation by up to 15 percent.

Cloud seeding flares are seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)
Cloud seeding flares are seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)

“Moreover, when implemented in a clean atmosphere, the enhancement ratio could potentially reach up to 25 percent. These figures underscore the effectiveness of cloud seeding as a technique to positively impact annual rainfall.”

Climate change consequences

Cloud-seeding missions come at a time when the planet grapples with the challenge of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as highlighted in the county’s recent staging of COP28 in Dubai. This threshold is identified by scientists as the point beyond which more severe consequences of climate change are anticipated. The UAE is, therefore, making concerted efforts to ensure the country’s water reserves are conserved.

According to Climates to Travel, a world climate guide, in the UAE, annual precipitation is almost everywhere below 100 millimeters (4 inches) and is concentrated in the winter months. The rains are rare, but they occur in the form of showers or downpours, which can sometimes be intense.

General view of flood water following a day of heavy rain in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, July 28, 2022. (Reuters)
General view of flood water following a day of heavy rain in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, July 28, 2022. (Reuters)

“The UAE views water security as a fundamental component of national security, particularly given its arid climate characterized by minimal annual rainfall, high surface water evaporation rates, and a low groundwater recharge rate,” said the NCM official. “With a considerable gap between annual water usage and available resources, the country recognizes the critical importance of addressing water scarcity challenges through exploring innovative solutions that contribute to the sustainability of water resources – not only within the UAE, but also in other arid regions globally.”

Finding reliable, alternative water resources

“This aligns with the broader climate change mitigation efforts of the UAE, demonstrated by marking 2023 as the year of sustainability and hosting the COP28 conference. Through its ongoing and future cloud-seeding initiatives, the country aims to find reliable and alternative water resources, enhance resilience in the face of arid climatic conditions and promote global collaboration in addressing water scarcity,” he further said.

Scientists in the UAE use varying methods for their cloud-seeding missions. Most commonly, they shoot hygroscopic salt flares by releasing salt nanoparticles, a newer technology, into the clouds to stimulate and accelerate the condensation process to produce droplets big enough to fall as rain.

An explanatory hologram of the cloud seeding process is seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)
An explanatory hologram of the cloud seeding process is seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)

How it works

“Cloud-seeding technology operates by introducing seeding agents at the lower part of clouds that have favorable updrafts,” said the NCM official. “These agents are carried upward into the clouds, enhancing microphysical processes such as condensation and coalescence.”

He added: “This augmentation leads to the enlargement of droplet sizes, making them heavier. The process entails dispersing these seeding agents into the atmosphere using various methods, including ground-based generators and aircraft. In our cloud-seeding program at NCM, we adopt a conventional approach that involves igniting hygroscopic flares containing natural salts, primarily potassium chloride. These flares are released from specialized aircraft.”

‘Integrating technological advancements and innovations’

The UAE's cloud seeding initiative, initiated in the 1990s, is ongoing and evolving with the NCM constantly exploring other, newer technologies. Last year, the NCM revealed plans to enhance and modernize the program by incorporating additional advanced cloud seeding aircraft into its fleet.

Cloud seeding flares are seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)
Cloud seeding flares are seen inside the control room at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2022. (Reuters)

“Since its inception, UAEREP has taken a keen interest in integrating technological advancements and innovations into its cloud-seeding projects. Recent initiatives involve the use of novel nanomaterials that have exhibited greater efficiency than the conventional materials in enhancing precipitation.”

Scientists are also utilizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in atmospheric charge dispersal and cloud measurement experiments, coupled with artificial intelligence trained on data from weather models.

The UAEREP-NCM also aims to stimulate additional investments in research funding and promote partnerships globally through research grants to find more novel ways to enhance precipitation. It offers each winning research proposal in the field of rain enhancement a grant of up to, $1.5 million, distributed over three years with a maximum annual amount of $550,000.

“The awardee projects under UAEREP have contributed to addressing water scarcity challenges in the region by advancing scientific understanding and technologies related to rain enhancement,” said the NCM official. “These projects conduct research and experiments to optimize cloud-seeding techniques, identify effective seeding materials, and enhance the overall efficiency of precipitation enhancement processes.”

Rain clouds gather over the Marina area of Dubai early December 13, 2009. (File photo: Reuters)
Rain clouds gather over the Marina area of Dubai early December 13, 2009. (File photo: Reuters)

According to the NCM official: “The knowledge gained from these projects not only contributes to increasing rainfall in the UAE, but also has the potential for application in other arid and semi-arid regions globally. By actively sharing our findings with the scientific community, these projects play a crucial role in fostering progress in rain enhancement science and technology, thereby ultimately contributing to addressing water scarcity on a broader scale.”

Significant field campaign

The UAEREP awardee projects continue to explore new approaches, applications, and novel technologies in cloud seeding. Notably, the recently conducted ‘Cloud-Aerosol-Electrical Interactions for Rainfall Enhancement Experiment (CLOUDIX)’ field campaign was a significant milestone. CLOUDIX tested the potentials of different cloud-seeding methods, most notably when combined with electric charges.

“This initiative provided invaluable data to enhance our understanding of convective cloud dynamics,” said the NCM official, adding another key achievement was the completion of a collaboration with Khalifa University on climate models to enhance cloud-seeding missions.

Looking ahead, UAEREP plans to continue supporting awardee projects in implementing their field test campaigns in 2024. These initiatives will contribute to ongoing assessments of project deliverables and further advancements in rain enhancement strategies for arid and semi-arid regions.

“One significant challenge lies in the vulnerability of cloud-seeding operations to changing climate and the inherent unpredictability of weather conditions, requiring adaptable strategies to navigate these variations effectively,” the NCM official explained. “Moreover, many countries, especially those facing water scarcity, encounter obstacles in allocating sufficient resources, skilled personnel, and the necessary equipment crucial for successful implementation of cloud-seeding initiatives.”

“Keeping up with the latest technological developments in cloud seeding is also crucial, and the integration of novel approaches and materials demands ongoing research and collaboration with global institutions,” the official said.

Additionally, public perception and awareness are crucial factors in the success of cloud-seeding projects, he added. This makes it essential to address misconceptions and concerns through transparent communication to ensure public trust and support.

‘Maintaining open communication channels’

“At UAEREP, we actively address these challenges through a comprehensive approach, involving collaboration with global research institutions and maintaining open communication channels with the public to raise awareness on the benefits of these technologies,” he further said.

Collating data through its hundreds of cloud-seeding missions a year is as important as accelerating rainfall, said the NCM official. The NCM actively facilitates data collection and monitoring to assess the effectiveness of cloud-seeding initiatives. This involves providing researchers with access to high-quality experimental data, including various specifications of cloud contents and ingredients.

“This data allows for comprehensive conclusions regarding the development of clouds, utilizing precise measurement tools and techniques. Additionally, the data sheds light on the extent of involvement in cloud-seeding efforts, and statistical randomization methods are employed as a recognized experiment to validate the efficacy of cloud seeding procedures,” the official said.

He added: “The long-term plans for cloud-seeding projects beyond 2024 in the UAE involve the awarded proposals in the fifth cycle as part of UAEREP’s strategic and sustained commitment to advancing rain enhancement science. This will further strengthen the program’s capabilities in developing practical solutions to address water scarcity challenges and contribute to global efforts in sustainable water resource management.”

Cloud seeding is employed in various countries, including the United States, where groundbreaking research was conducted during the mid-20th century.

Elsewhere in the region, other Gulf states are also turning to cloud seeding to boost annual rainfall. Saudi Arabia's National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) regularly carries out cloud seeding missions across the Kingdom in a bid to adjust its weather patterns and increase its rainfall from the current rate, which does not exceed 100mm annually.

The cloud-seeding initiative is one of the results of the Middle East Green Initiative Summit, which was introduced by Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the Kingdom's Vision 2030.

In 2023, Saudi Arabia’s historic mission to the International Space Station also saw Saudi astronauts Ali al-Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi – the first Arab woman in space – conduct experiments in cloud seeding.

It saw the astronauts conduct a first-of-its-kind cloud seeding experiment in space under microgravity conditions to help develop weather control technology to generate artificial rain in future human settlements on the Moon and Mars.

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