Every rain cloud has a silver lining for parched UAE

National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology team scans formations ready for cloud seeding.

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AL AIN // The UAE is striving to capture every drop of rain it can wring from passing clouds.

In the blazing sunshine at Al Ain airport, a twin-propeller Beechcraft stands ready to fly into action at a moment’s notice on a cloud seeding mission. Armed with salt flares to be fired into promising clouds, it aims to increase condensation in order to trigger a downpour.

The UAE ranks among the world’s top 10 driest countries. Its annual rainfall stands at 78 millimetres, 15 times less than that of the United Kingdom.

The National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) runs the cloud seeding programme. Its Abu Dhabi-based forecasters monitor weather radar to tell pilots when to take off on rainfall-inducing sorties.

“As soon as they see some convective cloud formations, they launch us on a flight to investigate,” to try “to seed the cloud”, said Mark Newman, NCMS deputy chief pilot.

Mr Newman said during the summer, clouds formed over the eastern Hajar Mountains which then deflected warm wind from the Gulf of Oman. This was the busiest time for the project.

The strength of the updraft determines the number of flares fired as the plane explores the base of the forming cloud.

“If we’ve got a mild updraft, we usually burn one or two flares. If we’ve got a good updraft, we burn four, sometimes six flares into the cloud,” he said.

Not all seeded clouds produce rainfall, but it happens often, said Mr Newman.

“It is fantastic. As soon as there is rain, there is a lot of excitement. We can hear the guys in the office are happy,” he said.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding in increasing rainfall has often been questioned. However, ski resorts in Colorado in the United States use the method to induce heavier snowfall. China also used rain dispersal technology to ensure dry weather for the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Rain triggered through cloud seeding is cheaper than desalinated water, said Omar Al Yazeedi, head of research at NCMS.

In 2010, four days of heavy rain induced by cloud seeding brought downpours equivalent to the nine-year output of a single desalination plant in Abu Dhabi, he said.

“This shows that there is a huge amount of water that could be tapped. It is a source that cannot be ignored,” he said.

Studies show cloud seeding can increase the amount of rain by between five and 70 per cent, depending on cloud quality.

NCMS executive director Abdulla Al Mandoos said studies were under way for more dams and to protect water – to direct rain “from the cloud right into the aquifer”. He said: “We do not want to waste a drop of water.”

* Agence France-Presse