As the world gets warmer, regions around the world are experiencing sweltering heat waves and setting records for high temperatures almost every passing year. This week the Middle East has been suffering from soaring temperatures reaching a truly hellish 125 degrees. These dangerously high temperatures come as the Arabian Gulf countries continue to experience the longest recorded meteorological drought, clocking in at a whopping twenty years.
“The general pattern of the climate in the region is warming. There is warming over the seas and sea surfaces, a rise in maximum temperatures, and drying precipitation. In addition, there has been an increase in the number of Category 4 and 5 severe tropical cyclones, which is critical when we look at the economy,” Dr. Said Alsarmi, a meteorological expert at the Gulf Cooperation Council, was quoted by the Gulf News earlier this year.
It stands to reason, then, that the United Arab Emirates, one of the richest and driest countries in the world, is pursuing a futuristic solution to combat rising temperatures and declining rainfall. Since the 1990s, the UAE has had a federal program devoted to “cloud seeding,” a technique seemingly ripped from the pages of a Philip K. Dick novel. The technology involves spraying aerosols into naturally-occuring clouds which encourage the formation of water droplets, essentially creating artificial rain.
The idea is that these aerosols, when sprayed into a cloud, give the water vapor a surface to condense upon, thereby catalyzing the natural water cycle and encouraging rainfall. “Aerosol particles already exist in the atmosphere but, by adding more, cloud seeders hope to increase precipitation or increase the likelihood of precipitation occurring at all,” Wired explains. These aerosols can be dispersed either from above or below, with planes and drones or with ground generators used to “fire the material from mountain tops in the direction of low-hanging clouds.”
This week a plethora of news outlets reported that the UAE has had enormous success with their man-made rain, sharing videos of downpours in Dubai in the midst of the region’s crushing heatwave. While it’s extremely well-documented that the Emirati government would love nothing more than to do just this, however, there is some doubt as to whether the videos can actually be attributed to cloud seeding, as fact-checking for Vice’s Motherboard revealed.
Indeed, the jury is still out as to whether cloud seeding works at all since it’s all but impossible to establish scientifically sound evidence of direct causation and not just correlation. “The problem with the atmosphere is that you can never do a controlled experiment,” environmental science researcher Paul Connolly told Wired back in 2019. “You can never say what would have happened—in all certainty—if you didn’t seed an area.”
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And then there’s the question of health and safety. Should we be concerned about what those drones zipping around the air above Dubai are spraying into the clouds to make them release their water? Probably. While there are some studies that have determined the practice to have no harmful environmental externalities, it’s also well established that the materials being sprayed can have harmful or toxic effects on humans, plants, animals, and vital micro-organisms including those found in soil. One of the oft-used materials is silver iodide, a decidedly toxic agent and a potential problem for human and ecological health if cloud seeding is scaled. Another material being used in cloud seeding experimentation is titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which are registered as a “possible carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
If the process does indeed work and is increasingly adopted, there is also potential for geopolitical conflict if a country like UAE is manipulating a cloud to release water over Dubai that it would otherwise have released over another region, for example. Playing around with weather patterns on a large scale could have all kinds of unintended consequences and lead to considerable tension in the thirsty Middle East, where every drop of rain is precious.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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An alternative and more practical way for the UAE and other Arab Gulf countries to pursue is to use solar energy to run hundreds of water desalination plants to produce water not only for drinking as is the case now but also to plant trees on an extensive scale. This could help reduce the impact of excessive heat by creating shaded areas using plants and trees which are best for shade.
In addition, solar energy could be used to generate cheap electricity thus enabling people to use air-conditioning in summer more extensively and also reduce emissions from burning oil and natural gas.
Another suggestion is to introduce new methods of building and architecture to create a draught as has been done at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi or building abode-style dwellings as in Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico or the mud houses as was the case in many parts of the Middle East but with all the modern appliances.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London