on June 7th, 2024

The recent downpour in Dubai has raised the question of whether cloud seeding or extreme weather was to blame and what engineering is involved in either scenario.

The recent downpour in Dubai, which caused death and devastated infrastructure damage, has raised questions about whether cloud seeding was to blame and what engineering was involved.

Dubai, on the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was hit by record floods in mid-April. In a single day, it received a year’s worth of rainfall. This deluge resulted in 22 deaths and hundreds of millions in infrastructure damage.

Schools across the UAE were closed for the remainder of the week, while Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates were filled with ankle-deep water. Viral videos showed cars floating through flooded streets and scores of people stranded at Dubai International Airport as runways flooded.

Almost immediately, speculation about cloud seeding spread online, with many wondering if this weather modification technique could have caused such devastating floods.

However, climate change experts and meteorologists quickly debunked this theory. They explained that the main cause was a cut-off low-pressure weather system, which drew in warm, moist air and blocked other weather systems.

“This part of the world is characterized by long periods without rain and then irregular, heavy rainfall, but even so, this was a very rare rainfall event,” said Prof. Maarten Ambaum, a meteorologist at the University of Reading, who has studied rainfall patterns in the Gulf region, in a BBC interview.

Richard Allan, a professor in climate science at the University of Reading, noted that the intensity of the rain was record-breaking, consistent with a warming climate. “With more moisture available to fuel storms, heavy rainfall events, and associated flooding are becoming more potent,” he explained.

What Is Cloud Seeding?

Clouds carry water, but it doesn’t always fall where needed. When water molecules are spread out, they aren’t dense enough to feel Earth’s gravity. When they gather, they form larger, heavier droplets that eventually fall as precipitation.

Cloud seeding involves modifying a cloud’s structure to increase the chance of precipitation by adding small, ice-like particles, usually silver iodide, to clouds. These particles act as additional condensation nuclei. Supercooled water vapor molecules in the clouds condense around these particles, forming larger droplets that eventually fall as rain.

There are two ways to add particles to clouds:

  • Using large cannons that shoot particles into the sky.
  • Using airplanes that drop particles from above.


Cloud Seeding and the Engineering Skills Involved

Cloud seeding is a complex process that requires various engineering skills to enhance precipitation. Here are the key engineering skills involved:

Electrical and Electronics Engineering

  • Instrumentation and Sensors: Designing and implementing sensors to measure atmospheric conditions, such as humidity, temperature, and cloud properties.
  • Control Systems: Developing automated systems for releasing seeding agents at precise times and locations.

Civil and Infrastructure Engineering

  • Ground-based Seeding Systems: Civil engineering skills are used to design ground-based generators and systems that release seeding agents into the atmosphere.
  • Infrastructure Management: Planning and maintaining infrastructure to support cloud seeding operations, including storage facilities for seeding agents and maintenance facilities for aircraft and equipment.

Atmospheric and Environmental Engineering

  • Meteorological Analysis: Understanding weather patterns, cloud types, and atmospheric conditions to determine the best conditions for cloud seeding.
  • Environmental Impact Assessment: Evaluating the ecological impact of cloud seeding activities to ensure they do not harm the environment.

Data Science and Computer Engineering

  • Data Analysis: Using advanced algorithms and machine learning to analyze large datasets from weather stations, satellites, and aircraft to predict optimal seeding times and locations.
  • Simulation and Modeling: Creating detailed computer models to simulate cloud seeding processes and predict outcomes.

Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

  • Aircraft Engineering: Designing and modifying aircraft to carry cloud-seeding equipment.
  • Drones and UAVs: Developing and deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with cloud-seeding technology.

Chemical Engineering

  • Seeding Agent Development: Creating effective seeding agents (e.g., silver iodide, sodium chloride) that can initiate precipitation.
  • Material Science: Ensuring that the materials used for cloud seeding are safe and effective under various atmospheric conditions.

Project Management and Coordination

  • Logistics: Coordinating the logistics of cloud seeding operations, including deploying aircraft, drones, and ground-based systems.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Ensuring all activities comply with regulations governing cloud seeding and environmental protection.

Ultimately, cloud seeding requires a multidisciplinary approach, combining expertise from various engineering fields to achieve effective and safe weather modification.

Extreme Weather, Climate Change, and the Role of Engineers

Although cloud seeding is employed by many countries worldwide, including the UAE and Australia, experts attribute the UAE floods to extreme weather patterns resulting from global warming.

As Earth’s climate changes, extreme weather patterns are becoming more frequent and intense. We are witnessing more record-breaking heat waves, torrential rains, severe floods, prolonged droughts, extreme wildfires, and widespread flooding during hurricanes.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, human activities—particularly the burning of fossil fuels—have led to a rapid increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, create a heat-trapping blanket, causing global temperatures to rise.

As the Earth’s air and ocean temperatures increase, the water cycle is disrupted, weather patterns shift, and land ice melts, all contributing to worsening extreme weather events.

“If humans continue to burn oil, gas, and coal, the climate will continue to warm, rainfall will continue to get heavier, and people will continue to lose their lives in floods,” said Dr. Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at Imperial College London, in the BBC article.

Meanwhile, engineers play a crucial role in reversing the damage to the global environment and combating climate change. By developing and implementing innovative technologies and sustainable practices, they are at the forefront of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

One notable example is the advancement in renewable energy technologies. Mechanical and electrical engineers have significantly improved the efficiency and affordability of solar and wind energy, making them viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Projects like the Hornsea One Offshore Wind Farm in the UK, the largest offshore wind farm in the world, showcase how engineering can harness natural resources to generate clean energy on a massive scale.

Civil and structural engineers contribute to sustainable urban development through green building practices. Creating energy-efficient buildings with advanced insulation, smart lighting, and heating systems reduces energy consumption and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. The Bullitt Center in Seattle, USA, is an exemplary model, often described as the greenest commercial building in the world, achieving net-zero energy use.

Through these efforts and many others, engineers are essential in the global fight against climate change. They apply their expertise to develop solutions that promote sustainability and resilience.

References

Explainer: What is cloud seeding and did it cause the floods in Dubai? Experts weigh in

What is cloud seeding and did it cause Dubai flooding?

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Cirrus cloud seeding: a climate engineering mechanism with reduced side effects?

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