Experts say it could spur conflict with a neighboring country.
This week, the Chinese government announced that it plans to drastically increase its use of technology that artificially changes the weather.
Cloud seeding technology, or systems that can blasts silver molecules into the sky to prompt condensation and cloud formation, has been around for decades, and China makes frequent use of it. But now, CNN reports that China wants to increase the total size of its weather modification test area to 5.5 million square miles by 2025 — a huge increase, and an area larger than that of the entire country of India, which could affect the environment on an epic scale and even potentially spur conflict with nearby countries.
Fog Of War
Most notably, China and India share a hotly-disputed border that they’ve violently clashed over as recently as this year, CNN has previously reported. India’s agriculture relies on a monsoon season that’s already grown unpredictable due to climate change, prompting experts in the country to worry that China may use its ability to control rain and snowfall as a weapon.
“Lack of proper coordination of weather modification activity (could) lead to charges of ‘rain stealing’ between neighboring regions,” National Taiwan University researchers conclude in a 2017 paper published in Geoforum.
In the past, China has used its weather modification tech to seed clouds well in advance of major events like the 2008 Olympics and political meetings so the events themselves happen under clear skies, CNN reports.
But this planned expansion of the system means that other countries may be subject to its meteorological whims — seeding international conflict in addition to clouds.
Facing a hotter future, dwindling water sources and an exploding population, scientists in one Middle East country are making it rain.
United Arab Emirates meteorological officials released a video this week of cars driving through a downpour in Ras al Khaimah in the northern part of the country. The storm was the result of one of the UAE’s newest efforts to increase rainfall in a desert nation that gets about four inches a year on average.
Washington, D.C., in contrast, has averaged nearly 45 inches of rain annually for the past decade.
Scientists created rainstorms by launching drones, which then zapped clouds with electricity, the Independent reports. Jolting droplets in the clouds can cause them to clump together, researchers found. The larger raindrops that result then fall to the ground, instead of evaporating midair — which is often the fate of smaller droplets in the UAE, where temperatures are hot and the clouds are high.
“What we are trying to do is to make the droplets inside the clouds big enough so that when they fall out of the cloud, they survive down to the surface,” meteorologist and researcher Keri Nicoll told CNN in May as her team prepared to start testing the drones near Dubai.
Nicoll is part of a team of scientists with the University of Reading in England whose research led to this week’s man-made rainstorms. In 2017, the university’s scientists received $1.5 million for use over three years from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science, which has invested in at least nine different research projects over the past five years.
To test their research, Nicoll and her team built four drones with wingspans of about 6½ feet. The drones, which are launched from a catapult, can fly for about 40 minutes, CNN reported. During flight, the drone’s sensors measure temperature, humidity and electrical charge within a cloud, which lets the researchers know when and where they need to zap.
Water is a big issue in the UAE. The country uses about 4 billion cubic meters of it each year but has access to about 4 percent of that in renewable water resources, according to the CIA. The number of people living in the UAE has skyrocketed in recent years, doubling to 8.3 million between 2005 and 2010, which helps explain why demand for water spiked by a third around that time, according to the government’s 2015 “State of Environment” report. The population kept surging over the next decade and is now 9.9 million.
“The water table is sinking drastically in [the] UAE,” University of Reading professor and meteorologist Maarten Ambaum told BBC News, “and the purpose of this [project] is to try to help with rainfall.”
It usually rains just a few days out of the year in the UAE. During the summer, there’s almost no rainfall. Temperatures there recently topped 125 degrees.
In recent years, the UAE’s massive push into desalination technology — which transforms seawater into freshwater by removing the salt — has helped close the gap between the demand for water and supply. Most of the UAE’s drinkable water, and 42 percent of all water used in the country, comes from its roughly 70 desalination plants, according to the UAE government.
Still, part of the government’s “water security strategy” is to lower demand by 21 percent in the next 15 years.
Ideas to get more water for the UAE have not lacked imagination. In 2016, The Washington Post reported government officials were considering building a mountain to create rainfall. As moist air reaches a mountain, it is forced upward, cooling as it rises. The air can then condense and turn into liquid, which falls as rain.
Estimates for another mountain-building project in the Netherlands came in as high as $230 billion.
Other ideas for getting more water to the UAE have included building a pipeline from Pakistan and floating icebergs down from the Arctic.
You’re not the only one who thinks constructing a rain-inducing mountain in the desert is a bonkers idea
By Jennings Brown
May 03, 2016 at 6:22 PM ET
Photo Illustration: R. A. Di ISO
The United Arab Emirates wants to build a mountain so the nation can control the weather—but some experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of this project, which may sound more like a James Bond villain’s diabolical plan than a solution to drought.
The actual construction of a mountain isn’t beyond the engineering prowess of the UAE. The small country on the Arabian Peninsula has pulled off grandiose environmental projects before, like the artificial Palm Islands off the coast of Dubai and an indoor ski hill in the Mall of the Emirates. But the scientific purpose of the mountain is questionable.
The UAE’s National Center for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) is currently collaborating with the U.S.-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) for the first planning phase of the ambitious project, according to Arabian Business. The UAE government gave the two groups $400,000 in funding to determine whether they can bring more rain to the region by constructing a mountain that will foster better cloud-seeding.
Last week the NCMS revealed that the UAE spent $588,000 on cloud-seeding in 2015. Throughout the year, 186 flights dispersed potassium chloride, sodium chloride and magnesium into clouds—a process that can trigger precipitation. Now, the UAE is hoping they can enhance the chemical process by forcing air up around the artificial mountain, creating clouds that can be seeded more easily and efficiently.
“What we are looking at is basically evaluating the effects on weather through the type of mountain, how high it should be and how the slopes should be,” NCAR lead researcher Roelof Bruintjes told Arabian Business. “We will have a report of the first phase this summer as an initial step.”
But some scientists don’t expect NCAR’s research will lead to a rain-inducing alp. “I really doubt that it would work,” Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor of physics at the University of Oxford told Vocativ. “You’d need to build a long ridge, not just a cone, otherwise the air would just go around. Even if you could do that, mountains cause local enhanced rain on the upslope side, but not much persistent cloud downwind, and if you need cloud seeding to get even the upslope rain, it’s really unlikely to work as there is very little evidence that cloud seeding produces much rainfall.”
Pierrehumbert, who specializes in geophysics and climate change, believes the regional environment would make the project especially difficult. “UAE is a desert because of the wind patterns arising from global atmospheric circulations, and any mountain they build is not going to alter those,” he said.
Pierrehumbert concedes that NCAR is a respectable organization that will be able to use the “small amount of money to research the problem.” He thinks some good scientific study will come of the effort—perhaps helping to determine why a hot, humid area bordered by the ocean receives so little rainfall.
But he believes the minimal sum should go into another project: “They’d be way better off putting the money into solar-powered desalination plants.”