Artificial rain in UAE? Experts speak
Abu Dhabi - National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology runs cloud seeding flights four days per week, quite a lot more than during the winter season.
It may come as a surprise, but the long, hot summer months are best for harvesting rain in the UAE. On average, the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) runs cloud seeding flights four days per week, quite a lot more than during the winter season.
"It's because in summer months the monsoon drafts, which traps moisture into the atmosphere," said Sufian Farrah, meteorologist and cloud seeding expert at NCMS.
Most of the operations though take place in mountainous areas, particularly in the north of UAE, where there are cloud formations.
Through NCMS, the UAE started cloud seeding in the late 1990s. The process involves "encouraging" clouds to release all the water droplets they contain.
"Some people think we are producing artificial rain, but that is not possible. The rain is as natural as it gets, we are just helping the clouds to release it," said Alya Al Mazrouei, director of Rain Enhancement Science programme at NCMS.
With groundwater depleting fast and the ever growing population and economy demanding more fresh water, desalination plants are fast becoming the major water resource in the UAE and the region. Yet, they are both expensive and harmful to the environment, so the government started looking into cloud seeding as an alternative.
In 2001, after signing various agreements with international institutions, the programme became regular.
"The goal at that time was to study the atmosphere and understand how rain clouds work scientifically. In the same time, we were running cloud seeding operations as well," added Farrah.
The NCMS began with building the infrastructure, which involved setting up 74 automatic weather stations across the country. Later on, 18 more stations were added to fill the gap between the west and south regions.
They measure weather conditions, atmospheric pressure, wind direction and speed, even global solar radiation, all important elements when deciding if a cloud is fit for seeding or not.
"We also have five stationary weather radars and one mobile one to detect rain clouds and the droplets size inside the cloud," said Farrah.
A second generation satellite to watch and monitor the region's air mass, fog, storms and thunderstorms is also used to determine cloud seeding operations.
As soon as a "good" cloud is found, one of NCMS's six Beach Craft King Air C 90 airplanes is sent out to seed the cloud.
When reaching the cloud, the pilot releases flares at its base containing salts. In 15-20 minutes, the reaction to the salts is produced and it starts to rain.
"We don't use any chemicals in cloud seeding, only salts, so there is nothing harmful in the process," said Al Mazrouei.
The met agency estimates that there has been an increase of 10 to 15 per cent of rainfall from cloud seeding in dusty atmosphere and 30 to 35 per cent more rain from cloud seeding in clean atmosphere since the programme began 16 years ago.
Particularly Abu Dhabi has witnessed an unusual amount of rain in this last cold season and a lot of rumours were going around that it was all due to cloud seeding. It wasn't!
According to NCMS, most of this rain happened without its aid, but the weather conditions did create more opportunities for cloud seeding.
"In the first quarter of 2016, from January to March, we had 77 operations, while in the same period in 2015 we had 17 operations," said Farrah.
Worldwide, cloud seeding has been going on for the past 50 years, but the science has never evolved or improved. With water security becoming a major worry especially in arid regions, the NCMS decided to encourage the scientific world to study this topic.
Proposals under study
National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) announced its first rain enhancement programme in 2015.
Scientific organisations and individuals from around the world were invited to submit proposals to the NCMS for researching cloud seeding related topics.
The best five would share $5 million to conduct their research, which has a deadline of three years.
In January 2016, the first three winners were announced and this year the process of selecting the 2017 winners has already begun.
According to Al Mazrouei, the programme is already proving successful across the scientific world.
"Last year we had 78 pre-proposals from 34 countries, but this year we received 91 pre-proposals from 45 countries," she said.
The submission process is closed now and the best 15 projects were notified on June 1. Now NCMS is waiting for the best 15 to submit their full proposals by August 17, then the top 5 winners will be made public in January 2017.
"Last January three winning projects were chosen - one involving land cover modification from Germany, one studying aerosols from Japan and one researching materials used in cloud seeding based on nanotechnology from Masdar Institute," said Al Mazrouei.
"This year we are looking for projects on different subjects to diversify the research, but later on in the future we will look to build upon existing research," she added.
All these researches will be made available, freely, by NCMS to anyone in the world who needs them.