Meet UAE pilots who can boost rain in 15 minutes during cloud-seeding missions

Like regular pilots, they zoom up into the sky— but they take the job to the next level by flying around and into the clouds in every mission


Nandini Sircar

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Published: Thu 19 Oct 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 19 Oct 2023, 10:49 PM

Captain Mark Newman has dedicated 10 years of service to the National Centre of Meteorology (NCM), piloting cloud-seeding aircrafts here.

However, his expertise in flying cloud-seeding planes dates back even further.

Trained pilots like him work in coordination with meteorologists and cloud-seeding specialists to carry out the UAE’s rain enhancement missions.

Photos: Rahul Gajjar/KT
Photos: Rahul Gajjar/KT

NCM analyses weather maps daily as pilots remain on standby

Speaking to Khaleej Times exclusively, on the sidelines of the mission, he explains each day during the morning shift, the NCM’s cloud-seeding specialists begin by analysing weather maps to identify ideal conditions for cloud-seeding operations.

“They focus on areas where clouds are likely to form in location and time, which is crucial for cloud seeding success. A typical mission can take up to three hours and we cover all of UAE’s borders, ” explains the South African national.

Based on this analysis, a cloud-seeding plan is developed for the current day and the following three days.

“That gives us…the pilots a guidance to be on standby status,” says Newman.

The preparation process begins by equipping the designated aircraft with cloud-seeding materials. The planes have holding racks to carry the cloud-seeding flares and canisters.

“It’s placed on standby before the take-off order is issued by the cloud-seeding specialists present in the operations room.”

He highlights throughout this process; the operator consistently observes satellite images and weather radar visuals to ensure precise execution.

As clouds start to form, their locations are identified, and a take-off order is issued following a careful assessment of radar images to determine the optimal position within the cloud.

Pilot action

“Once the location has been confirmed, a seeding command is issued, and the operations center maintains constant communication with us (the pilots), guiding the aircraft to additional cloud sites for further operations,” he adds.

Newman says: “We fly to a target cloud set by operations. We will get there and fly around the base of the cumulus clouds. As soon as we pick up an updraft from that cloud, we'll then put ourselves into an orbit. This is basically flying a circle pattern underneath that cloud. That is where we release the salt particles from the flare to enhance the cloud conductivity. Once we have done that, then we move away from the cloud.”

Currently, the UAE conducts nearly 300 cloud-seeding missions annually. Until January 2023, 247 cloud seeding missions have already been carried out.

“Our altitudes vary but we generally do base seeding. That is, our cloud seeding is base-orientated. We fly anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, below the cloud base levels.”

The captain describes how sodium chloride, commonly known as regular salt, is released into the updrafts of the cloud.

“Salt particles are absorbed into the cloud, serving as nuclei. These nuclei attract moisture, causing droplets to grow through coalescence. Eventually, the droplet becomes too large for gravity to sustain, resulting in rain. Essentially, this process releases moisture from the cloud,” says the veteran pilot.

When asked how long it takes before it rains, he adds: “It takes anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour for the materials to take effect, enhancing precipitation, leading to rainfall.”

Winter operations surpass summer figures

Similarly, William Murgatroyd, who has been a part of these missions for four years now, highlights that the missions during the winter months outnumber the missions during the summer period.

He adds: “We have 12 pilots assigned for the mission with four aircrafts to cover the cloud seeding operations in the country.

“Sometimes in one day, we fly three missions. In the summer months, these cloud-seeding missions are conducted from the afternoon until sunset. But during winter months we conduct operations from sunrise to sunset or sunset to sunrise on the following day,” says the South African expat.

Environmentally friendly salts used for cloud-seeding

The pilots explain in the UAE, environmentally friendly hygroscopic materials are commonly used for cloud seeding.

These materials contain natural salts, including potassium chloride and sodium chloride, and are typically delivered into clouds via flares.

“Additionally, there has been a recent shift towards the use of novel nanomaterials for cloud seeding such as hygroscopic and hydrophilic materials.”

Studies and experiments have suggested that these nanomaterials exhibit greater effectiveness in enhancing precipitation when compared to conventional materials.

“During the summers of 2004 and 2005, a statistical randomisation experiment was conducted, revealing that cloud seeding could increase water extraction from the cloud by 10-15 per cent in turbid atmospheric conditions. In cleaner atmospheres, this enhancement ratio could potentially reach up to 25 per cent,” he adds.


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