Temperatures are hovering around 125 degrees across the Middle East. In the United Arab Emirates, a heat wave has brought it some of its highest temperatures on record for this time of year, while rainfall remains limited to a few inches per year. It's surprising, then, that social media has been flooded with videos showing torrential downfalls in the region.
Numerous news outlets wrote about the videos and claimed that the UAE was creating artificial rain specifically to deal with the recent heat wave. Motherboard has learned that this wasn't the case, but it's nonetheless a fascinating example of geoengineering being put unexpectedly on trial.
Cloud seeding is an 80-year-old weather modification practice, a form of geoengineering that has long garnered controversy for its so far dubious efficacy. The practice involves releasing materials such as silver iodide into clouds via aircraft to catalyze the process by which water droplets clump together and fall as rain.
Silver iodide compounds serve as a scaffold that water molecules can cling onto until they become heavy enough to drop to the earth’s surface; it turns regular clouds, which seldom transition from vapor to droplet in this part of the country, into rainstorms, averting drought and its economic consequences along the way. The weather modification tool has also been used to prevent large storm surges by breaking up clouds and, in the US, as a military technique that’s since been banned by the United Nations, although its effectiveness in war was in doubt even in the 1970s.
The UAE has maintained a federally-funded research center devoted to studying cloud seeding in an effort to improve water security since the 1990s. The UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science now boasts six aircrafts devoted to cloud seeding and $1.5 million in grant offerings for research and innovation in this area.
“Rain enhancement … could offer a viable, cost-effective supplement to existing water supplies in arid and semi-arid regions,” the program’s website reads, noting that the UAE is striving to be a leader in the technology.
The YouTube channel of the UAE's National Center of Meteorology (NCM) has frequently uploaded videos of torrential downpours in the country for years, and the recent heat wave is no exception. The videos often contain very little information, often simply noting the date, location, and type of weather. When it's not uploading these videos, the channel also posts videos explaining the country's cloud seeding program. The NCM has also appended numerous recent tweets reporting rain in the region with the hashtag #cloud_seeding.
This led news outlets to report that the UAE's cloud seeding program was apparently a runaway success, and that the country was using artificial rainstorms to deal with the recent heat wave. When reached for comment, an NCM spokesperson said the country had not been cloud seeding last week, but that the program “is running regularly when there is seedable clouds, any day of the year.”
Though the country’s seemingly outlandish rainstorms went viral last week, Adel Kamal, media specialist for the NCM says last week’s events were far from out of the ordinary
“The issue of water security in the UAE is considered among the most prominent future challenges,” Kamal told Motherboard in an email. “The National Center of Meteorology has a distinguished infrastructure to implement rain seeding operations at the state level … in addition to the first factory to produce high-quality cloud seeding flares.”
Though the UAE is investing heavily in regularly creating artificial torrential rain storms where there would otherwise not be, the effectiveness of cloud seeding is still under debate.
While weather modification has in the past been banned in states like Pennsylvania, other parts of the US have welcomed the practice through dry periods. Currently in the thick of a decades-long megadrought worse than anything the world has seen in 1,200 years, southwestern states like Utah, California, Texas and Arizona have embraced cloud seeding for years out of concern over dwindling snowpack and rainfall.
But scientific consensus around whether the rain enhancement practice actually works is split. On the one hand, determining causality in weather patterns is impossible without a control variable; scientists can’t test what a cloud would’ve done had it not been seeded, and can therefore only conjecture that increased rainfall following spraying events is due to the technique.
“The problem with the atmosphere is that you can never do a controlled experiment. You can never say what would have happened—in all certainty—if you didn’t seed an area,” Paul Connolly, researcher in the department of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Manchester told WIRED in 2019.
But others believe we’re as close as we can get to determining that this method of weather manipulation really works. Katja Friedrich, atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder was unconvinced of the certainty of cloud seeding until she experimented with it herself, matching the path of a spraying plane with the path of tiny droplets of water that began to fall after being picked up by radar.
“Suddenly, we saw lines appear. It was really astonishing,” she told Science Magazine in 2018.
Jurisdictions that have embraced cloud seeding often laud the practice as efficient and environmentally-friendly. Julie Gondzar, project manager at the Wyoming Water Development Office told The Guardian in March that the state had determined that “cloud seeding works, and is an effective way to aid in drought-stricken areas, with no negative environmental impacts.”
A handful of studies echo this reality, though it’s well-understood that silver in some concentrations and chemical compounds can be toxic to aquatic organisms. But a 2021 study on aerosol pollution levels across 20 regions of the UAE found higher concentrations of particulate matter (PM)—tiny pollutant droplets that can penetrate deeply into the lungs and cause lung irritation or long-term respiratory illness—in regions that had recently experienced cloud seeding. The researchers attributed regional differences in PM volumes to weather conditions and industrial activity.
In 2019, the UAE conducted at least 185 cloud-seeding operations, WIRED reported at the time. The end of the year saw “torrential downpours,” and flooding that blocked traffic in streets, neighborhoods and malls. A spokesperson for the UAE NCM denied that it created the flood conditions to WIRED at the time. According to Gulf Today, the NCM has carried out 126 cloud seeding flights in 2021 so far, including 14 flights since last Tuesday.
“We only enhance the amount of rain; we are not creating floods,” Sufian Farrah, meteorologist and cloud seeding expert said.