Complex Made Simple

The UAE is ‘charging’ ahead with plan to increase rainfall

Drones that fly into clouds, giving them an electric shock to "cajole them" into producing rain, are about to be tested in the UAE. It's not cloud seeding and the idea has promise though it's still theoretical

In 2017, the UAE provided $15 million for nine different rain-enhancement projects Drones will fly at low altitudes and deliver an electric charge to air molecules More than 50 countries around the world currently have weather modification programs

Drones that fly into clouds, giving them an electric shock to “cajole them” into producing rain, are about to be tested in the United Arab Emirates.

The country already uses cloud-seeding technology, dropping salt to encourage precipitation.

But with average rainfall in the UAE at just 100mm per year, the country wants to generate more.

In 2017, the government provided $15 million for nine different rain-enhancement projects.

Scientists at the University of Reading are heading one of them and theirs aims to change the balance of electrical charge on cloud droplets, explained Prof Maarten Ambaum, who worked on the project.

“The water table is sinking drastically in the UAE and the purpose of this is to try to help with rainfall,” he told the BBC.

The country does, though, “have plenty of clouds”, so the plan is to persuade the water droplets in them to merge and stick together, “like dry hair to a comb” when it meets static electricity, he said.

“When the drops merge and are big enough, they will fall as rain.”

Alya Al-Mazroui, director of the UAE’s rain-enhancement science-research program, told Arab News

“Equipped with a payload of electric-charge emission instruments and customized sensors, these drones will fly at low altitudes and deliver an electric charge to air molecules, which should encourage precipitation.”

The study will then be evaluated, with the hope of more funding for a larger aircraft to deliver the payload in the future.

Read: Oil, electric vehicles and the environment: Driving climate change plans

Read: Will you eat forks, knives, trays, corks, wrappings to rid environment from plastics?

How does it work?

As clouds naturally carry positive and negative charges, altering the size of the charges could cause the water droplets to grow and merge, thus producing rain.

The charge emission technology uses a small, lightweight vehicle to deliver charge into the clouds instead of traditional cloud seeding payloads. This method does not involve the emission of any solid particles into clouds such as silver iodide or salt, which cloud seeding does.

Cloud seeding

Cloud seeding missions are only dispatched if rain-bearing cumulus cloud formations are seen over the country. Once they are identified, the UAE National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) quickly launches aircrafts carrying salt crystals mixed with magnesium, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride.

Cloud seeding operations rely on a sophisticated network of radars that monitor the country’s atmosphere around the clock.

A team of pilots and technicians based at the NCM’s dedicated operations room analyze this data and carry out cloud seeding operations if they detect seedable clouds.

Image source: Gulf News

The technique involves releasing silver iodide particles, which have very similar structures to ice, in the air, often from planes. Once they reach the inside of clouds, they attract droplets, which then cluster and freeze as they gather.

The idea of cloud seeding has been around for decades, since at least the 1940s, but the practice couldn’t be more relevant today as temperatures rise, increasing the risk of droughts. In fact, some researchers are now warning of increasing risks of  “megadroughts” that could last for decades.

Other rainmaking methods

Other weather manipulation techniques that have been considered over the years include: blowing storms away from land with windmills, cooling the ocean with cryogenic material or icebergs, delaying surface evaporation with monomolecular films, blowing a hurricane apart with hydrogen bombs or laser beams, and injecting air into the center of a storm.

More than 50 countries around the world currently have weather modification programs.

China is massively expanding its weather-control project, primarily cloud seeding, and is aiming to be able to cover half the country in artificial rain and snow by 2025, the government said in December 2020.