Dubai's Answer to Real Heat Is … Fake Rain?

The United Arab Emirates is using drones to induce artificial rainstorms in response to climate change.

Dubai skyline
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Although the effects of climate change in the Middle East are real, the remedy might not be, according to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has decided that the best way to fight extreme weather caused by humans could be … extreme weather caused by humans. Specifically, artificial rainstorms that are generated by drone-induced lightning.

The idea comes from scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of Reading, which in 2017 received a $1.5 million research grant from the UAE to invest in so-called “Rain Enhancement Science,” The Washington Post reported last month. According to the paper, the UAE receives just a few days of rain per year—an average of 4 inches annually—and almost no rainfall in the summer. Meanwhile, temperatures there routinely reach triple digits, and recently exceeded a blistering 125 degrees.

It is the desert, after all—but hot, dry conditions are getting even worse thanks to climate change, according to Middle East newspaper The National, which says average temperatures in the UAE has risen by almost 2.7 degrees in the last 60 years, and are expected to rise by another 4.3 degrees in the next 40 years.

But the problem isn’t just the weather. Also, it’s people: From 2005 to 2010, the UAE’s population doubled from 4.6 million to 8.3 million, and now stands at 9.9 million a decade later. Although all those people need water for drinking and sanitation, there simply isn’t any, notes The Washington Post, which says the UAE uses approximately 4 billion cubic meters of water every year but has access to only 4% of that—some 160 million cubic meters—in renewable water resources.

One solution to this problem is desalination, which removes the salt from seawater to make it drinkable. The UAE currently has 70 desalination plants that supply most of the country’s drinking water and 42% of all water that Emiratis use. But desalination plants are powered by fossil fuels, and emit harmful greenhouse gases that can exacerbate climate change even further. So, the country needs additional, alternative, and cleaner water sources.

Enter the scientists at the University of Reading, who built four drones with wingspans of approximately 6.5 feet. Launched from a catapult and able to fly for some 40 minutes, they use sensors to analyze the contents of clouds. When they find one that’s optimal—a combination of the right temperature, humidity, and electrical charge—they jolt it with electricity, which causes small water droplets in the cloud to cluster together into larger droplets, which then fall to the ground as rain.

The size of the raindrops is key because smaller drops never reach the ground; thanks to the high heat, they simply evaporate midair.

“Understanding more about how rain forms, and with the potential to bring much-needed relief to arid regions, is an extraordinary scientific achievement,” professor Robert Van de Noort, vice-chancellor at the University of Reading, said during a May meeting with the UAE’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mansoor Abulhoul, who visited the university for a demonstration of the technology. “We are mindful that we as a university have a big role to play by working with global partners to understand and help prevent the worst effects of climate change.”

Added Abulhoul, “Academic partnerships like these are driving technological breakthroughs with a range of important applications, including fighting the effects of climate change … It’s moving to think that the rainfall technology I saw today, which is still being developed, may someday support countries in water-scarce environments like the UAE.”

Van de Noort conceded that humankind’s ability to manipulate weather “is puny compared to the forces of nature.” Nevertheless, his team proved that it’s possible. Not only in the United Kingdom in spring, but also in the sweltering city of Ras al Khaimah in the middle of summer, where the research team completed a successful demonstration in July, videos from which the UAE’s National Center of Meteorology shared on Twitter.

Although drones aren’t yet zapping clouds over the UAE with regularity, CBS News says a version of the same technology already is operational in the United States, where at least eight states are using it to stimulate rainfall. Meanwhile, the UAE continues to push ahead on several other projects as part of a $15 million “water security strategy.” Other ideas included building a manmade mountain that would turn moist air into rain by forcing it upward toward higher elevations, importing water from Pakistan via a water pipeline, and moving icebergs south from the Arctic.

While science offers innovative solutions, the UAE's current climate and future projections spotlight the importance of policymakers and corporations to strengthen the global response to the climate crisis.

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  1. "Water." United Arab Emirates.