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Cloud Wars: Mideast Rivalries Rise Along a Latest Front


ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Iranian officials have frightened for years that other nations have been depriving them of one among their vital water sources. However it was not an upstream dam that they were worrying about, or an aquifer being bled dry.

In 2018, amid a searing drought and rising temperatures, some senior officials concluded that somebody was stealing their water from the clouds.

“Each Israel and one other country are working to make Iranian clouds not rain,” said Brig. Gen. Gholan Reza Jalali, a senior official within the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps in a 2018 speech.

The unnamed country was the United Arab Emirates, which had begun an ambitious cloud-seeding program, injecting chemicals into clouds to attempt to force precipitation. Iran’s suspicions are usually not surprising, given its tense relations with most Persian Gulf nations, but the actual purpose of those efforts is just not to steal water, but simply to make it rain on parched lands.

Because the Middle East and North Africa dry up, countries within the region have launched into a race to develop the chemicals and techniques that they hope will enable them to squeeze rain drops out of clouds that might otherwise float fruitlessly overhead.

With 12 of the 19 regional countries averaging lower than 10 inches of rainfall a 12 months, a decline of 20 percent over the past 30 years, their governments are desperate for any increment of fresh water, and cloud seeding is seen by many as a fast solution to tackle the issue.

And as wealthy countries just like the emirates pump tons of of thousands and thousands of dollars into the trouble, other nations are joining the race, attempting to be certain that they don’t miss out on their fair proportion of rainfall before others drain the heavens dry — despite serious questions on whether the technique generates enough rainfall to be well worth the effort and expense.

Morocco and Ethiopia have cloud-seeding programs, as does Iran. Saudi Arabia just began a large-scale program, and a half-dozen other Middle Eastern and North African countries are considering it.

China has essentially the most ambitious program worldwide, with the aim of either stimulating rain or halting hail across half the country. It’s attempting to force clouds to rain over the Yangtze River, which is running dry in some spots.

While cloud seeding has been around for 75 years, experts say the science has yet to be proven. They usually are especially dismissive of worries about one country draining clouds dry on the expense of others downwind.

The life span of a cloud, specifically the sort of cumulus clouds probably to supply rain, isn’t greater than a few hours, atmospheric scientists say. Occasionally, clouds can last more, but rarely long enough to achieve one other country, even within the Persian Gulf, where seven countries are jammed close together.

But several Middle Eastern countries have brushed aside the experts’ doubts and are pushing ahead with plans to wring any moisture they will from otherwise stingy clouds.

Today, the unquestioned regional leader is the United Arab Emirates. As early because the Nineties, the country’s ruling Al Nayhan family recognized that maintaining a plentiful supply of water can be as necessary because the nation’s huge oil and gas reserves in sustaining its status because the financial and business capital of the Persian Gulf.

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While there had been enough water to sustain the tiny country’s population in 1960, when there have been fewer than 100,000 people, by 2020 the population had ballooned to just about 10 million. And the demand for water soared, as well. United Arab Emirates residents now use roughly 147 gallons per person a day, compared with the world average of 47 gallons, in keeping with a 2021 research paper funded by the emirates.

Currently, that demand is being met by desalination plants. Each facility, nonetheless, costs $1 billion or more to construct and requires prodigious amounts of energy to run, especially in comparison with cloud seeding, said Abdulla Al Mandous, the director of the National Center of Meteorology and Seismology within the emirates and the leader of its cloud-seeding program.

After 20 years of research and experimentation, the middle runs its cloud-seeding program with near military protocols. Nine pilots rotate on standby, able to bolt into the sky as soon as meteorologists specializing in the country’s mountainous regions spot a promising weather formation — ideally, the varieties of clouds that may construct to heights of as much as 40,000 feet.

They must be ready on a moment’s notice because promising clouds are usually not as common within the Middle East as in lots of other parts of the world.

“We’re on 24-hour availability — we live inside 30 to 40 minutes of the airport — and from arrival here, it takes us 25 minutes to be airborne,” said Capt. Mark Newman, a South African senior cloud-seeding pilot. Within the event of multiple, potentially rain-bearing clouds, the middle will send a couple of aircraft.

The United Arab Emirates uses two seeding substances: the standard material manufactured from silver iodide and a newly patented substance developed at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi that uses nanotechnology that researchers there say is healthier adapted to the new, dry conditions within the Persian Gulf. The pilots inject the seeding materials into the bottom of the cloud, allowing it to be lofted tens of hundreds of feet by powerful updrafts.

After which, in theory, the seeding material, made up of hygroscopic (water attracting) molecules, bonds to the water vapor particles that make up a cloud. That combined particle is somewhat larger and in turn attracts more water vapor particles until they form droplets, which eventually turn into heavy enough to fall as rain — with no appreciable environmental impact from the seeding materials, scientists say.

That’s in theory. But many within the scientific community doubt the efficacy of cloud seeding altogether. A serious stumbling block for a lot of atmospheric scientists is the issue, perhaps the impossibility, of documenting net increases in rainfall.

“The issue is that after you seed, you possibly can’t tell if the cloud would have rained anyway,” said Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University and an authority in evaluating climate engineering strategies.

One other problem is that the tall cumulus clouds commonest in summer within the emirates and nearby areas may be so turbulent that it’s difficult to find out if the seeding has any effect, said Roy Rasmussen, a senior scientist and an authority in cloud physics on the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Israel, a pioneer in cloud seeding, halted its program in 2021 after 50 years since it appeared to yield at best only marginal gains in precipitation. It was “not economically efficient,” said Pinhas Alpert, an emeritus professor on the University of Tel Aviv who did probably the most comprehensive studies of this system.

Cloud seeding got its start in 1947, with General Electric scientists working under a military contract to search out a solution to de-ice planes in cold weather and create fog to obscure troop movements. A few of the techniques were later utilized in Vietnam to extend the monsoon season, in an effort to make it harder for the North Vietnamese to provide their troops.

While the underlying science of cloud seeding seems straightforward, in practice, there are many problems. Not all clouds have the potential to supply rain, and even a cloud seemingly suitable for seeding may not have enough moisture. One other challenge in hot climates is that raindrops may evaporate before they reach the bottom.

Sometimes the effect of seeding may be larger than expected, producing an excessive amount of rain or snow. Or the winds can shift, carrying the clouds away from the world where the seeding was done, raising the potential of “unintended consequences,” notes an announcement from the American Meteorological Society.

“You may modify a cloud, but you possibly can’t tell it what to do after you modify it,” said James Fleming, an atmospheric scientist and historian of science at Colby College in Maine.

“It’d snow; it’d dissipate. It’d go downstream; it’d cause a storm in Boston,” he said, referring to an early cloud-seeding experiment over Mount Greylock within the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

This appears to be what happened within the emirates in the summertime of 2019, when cloud seeding apparently generated such heavy rains in Dubai that water needed to be pumped out of flooded residential neighborhoods and the upscale Dubai mall.

Despite the difficulties of gathering data on the efficacy of cloud seeding, Mr. Al Mandous said the emirates’ methods were yielding not less than a 5 percent increase in rain annually — and almost actually much more. But he acknowledged the necessity for data covering many more years to satisfy the scientific community.

Over last Latest Yr’s weekend, said Mr. Al Mandous, cloud seeding coincided with a storm that produced 5.6 inches of rain in three days — more precipitation than the United Arab Emirates often gets in a 12 months.

Within the tradition of many scientists who’ve tried to change the weather, he’s ever optimistic. There may be the brand new cloud-seeding nanosubstance, and if the emirates just had more clouds to seed, he said, possibly they might make more rain for the country.

And where would those extra clouds come from?

“Making clouds could be very difficult,” he acknowledged. “But, who knows, possibly God will send us anyone who could have the concept of tips on how to make clouds.”

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