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Confused about Cloud Seeding

Who knew cloud seeding has been around since WWII?! Read on to get the skinny on the (not so) modern technology everyone is talking about

By Natasha-Hatherall-Shawe

Last week I landed back into Dubai after a few days away to an almighty rainstorm that kept me circling around for over an hour trying to land as the weather caused chaos at the airport and across the city. Residents struggled to get home with some taking over three hours to do a 20 minute usual journey, we were greeted with endless flood and rain photos on social media, schools were cancelled and there were a lot of leaks and damage. We all know by now whilst us Dubai folk get excited about rain and cold weather, our infrastructure struggles to keep up as it just wasn’t built with rain in mind.

The news reports that the UAEs cloud seeding mission is in progress and rain is expected to continue in the weeks ahead. Now we’ve all known cloud seeding is a thing and that it happens here, but how much thought have you given it and what do we know about it? And more to point, is there anything to be concerned about?

We decided to take a closer look at this thing called Cloud Seeding to learn a bit more.

56 countries around the world are known to use cloud seeding technology to help battle droughts and extreme weather climates, with the UAE being one. Cloud seeding has been used globally since WWII and in the UAE since the 1990s and so is not new as such, but perhaps the increased frequency is.

Cloud seeding itself is a technique used to impact the weather and keep up with the increased demand for freshwater. It is a technique that creates an ideal atmosphere and improves the quality and amount of rain. It is not 'creating' or 'making' rain, it is a process that enhances condensation with the process engineering heavy clouds and enhancing rainfall.

In the UAE there are two ways used to cloud seed – from the air and from the land. First, an aircraft is used to drop a condensation nuclei. The National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) targets the dense clouds moving over the Arabian Gulf to increase rainfall yield by at least 15%. The condensation nuclei contain salts, mainly magnesium, potassium chloride and sodium chloride that are fitted into flares loaded on the aircraft. These flares are released into the cumulus cloud formations, where they accelerate condensation, forming water droplets weighing enough to create rainfall.

It is said that the UAE uses four planes and six pilots when they go on cloud seeding missions, with Al Ain Airport being the base for these aircraft given its location close to the mountains. Once cumulus cloud formations are spotted, the planes take off to start the cloud seeding process.

The UAE is also testing a new cloud seeding process using drones where machines zap clouds with electricity leading to droplets clumping together and ultimately larger droplets of rain to fall. It’s likely in the future that this method will replace aircraft.

The second way that cloud seeding can be done is from the land which is called the weather modification system. This system involves ground generators, currently placed in the mountainous areas of Hafeet and Fujairah. These generators shoot salt flares into the clouds from the ground instead of dropping them from the plane for increased rains. Clouds have two masses of air – the upper draft and the lower draft. The flares are dropped into the upper draft that sucks them in as they burn the salt particles. The burnt salt particles attach to the moisture droplets already present in the clouds, resulting in heavier, bigger rain droplets because of condensation. The salt crystal flares then encourage the formation and release of cloud moisture, which then turns into precipitation.

So, that’s the science and how it works in practice and you have to be amazed at the wonder of it all and the ability to change the weather, but of course we can’t help but think if there is anything for us to be concerned about and whether the fake weather can be harmful to our health and our planet?

The good news is that cloud seeding is not new. It’s been happening for a long time now and a lot of research has been done and so far no experts have found any harmful effects of cloud seeding using silver iodide with the concentration being far below the accepted limit of 50 micrograms per liter.

We may be seeing a lot more of it too as researchers looking seriously at cloud seeding as a way to help reduce our impact on the planet and help 'cool' us down. The challenges just lie in the unpredictability of such techniques, yet alone the ability to stop them once they’re started. Oh and of course, of who controls them!

But for now, if we’re told it’s raining and they cloud seeded, it seems we don’t need to worry too much. In all seriousness, it’s likely that driving on the SZR in the rain may be more dangerous than anything that caused it.

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