UAE weather: Raising the isobar on forecasts

A villa in Abu Dhabi is the nerve centre where meteorologists collect, collate and analyse information from around the world to produce accurate predictions about changes in the weather.

Majed Al Shekaili, head of the marine forecast section, emphasised the reports and warnings the centre sends to police, coastguards, ports and the public. Lee Hoagland / The National
Powered by automated translation

A villa in Abu Dhabi is the nerve centre where meteorologists collect, collate and analyse information from around the world to produce accurate predictions about changes in the weather, and how to influence it through cloud seeding to bring vital rain.

Tucked away on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi sits one of the country's most important, yet largely unknown, national agencies.

Every room in the sand-coloured, palatial Khalifa City villa contains at least 15 computer screens, each one flashing with data being transmitted from satellites around the world. There are complex-looking maps scattered across the desks, with elaborate markings indicating changes in air pressure, temperature and cloud formation, to name just a few.

The information from more than 50 automatic weather stations in and around the UAE is fed back to this hub, where a group of meteorologists is using it to determine forecasts for the military, coastguard, airports and the public.

The inside walls of the building are papered with detailed maps of the world and diagrams showing the inner workings of different clouds. There is also a large picture of a twin-engined plane with red flares attached to its wings adorning a wall.

This National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS), which falls under the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, was established in 2007 when the Meteorological Department of the Ministry of Transport merged with the Department of Atmospheric Studies.

It is the main source of all weather-related information for the country's national agencies. Not only does it provide daily forecasts for the general public, it also collates thousands of figures each day to help produce accurate records for the future.

Employing hundreds of people, with an increasing number of UAE citizens in specialist roles, it is a 24-hour operation with at least one senior weather forecaster working at any time.

"It is important that there is someone here all the time so we do not miss anything," says Majed Al Shekaili, head of the marine forecasting section. "It is not just about temperatures and humidity. There are many different types of weather, which it is important for people to know.

"We must send out forecasts and warnings to the police, the coastguards, the ports and to the public. It is all important. If the seas will be rough, we must tell the coastguard. It is their responsibility to radio to fishermen."

Every morning, representatives from each department convene for a round-table meeting to discuss the coming days' forecasts.

"It is important to hear every opinion in case there are some issues," says Mr Al Shekaili, 35, a meteorologist for more than a decade. "It is important to hear opinions if there is some phenomena which might cause an issue.

"It is very hard to predict exact timings of events such as when rain will fall or when a storm will hit, but we can all watch the intensity of the clouds. If something is getting very intense, we send out a warning."

One of the main phenomena staff observe closely is fog, which, if thick enough, can reduce visibility to just tens of meters, grounding planes and bringing traffic to a standstill. In 2008, more than 350 people were injured in a 200-car pile-up on the Abu Dhabi to Dubai motorway, caused by careless drivers who refused to heed warnings about poor visibility and continued to drive too fast for the conditions.

Although in general this country is hardly a place with vastly changing weather, the topic remains one of the most talked about among citizens and expatriates alike.

In recent years, the centre has tried to build itself a higher public profile using its @NCMS_media Twitter account, which has just over 18,000 followers, and other new technology such as iPad and iPhone applications.

Surour Aldurra, a 27-year-old Emirati from Al Ain, is one of the younger meteorologists on the team and keen on informing more people about the work he does.

"I think the Arabic community is much more aware of all the different things we do," says the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate, whose brother is a weather forecaster with the army. "We do at least six radio bulletins every day on Arabic radio, but I've heard the English radio and they just give the temperature and maybe the humidity, I'm not sure why. I don't think people have much idea what happens. But it will get there. There are always times when people are very interested, like in a sandstorm."

As well as forecasting weather, the centre has two other key roles - monitoring earthquakes in and around the UAE, and helping to increase the country's ever-shrinking groundwater reserves through cloud seeding.

For the cloud seeding, it is the job of a team of specialist meteorologists to monitor satellite data showing cloud formation and density. The team is generally able to predict the formation of the right clouds in advance, but then only have up to an hour to dispatch a pilot and plane to do the hygroscopic seeding.

"The UAE is the first country in the Middle East and Arab world that has succeeded in cloud seeding," says Ali Mohammed Al Musallam, a senior forecaster in the cloud seeding department. "There have been a lot of Arab countries that have started doing it, but they have stopped. It is not an easy task. It can take 20 or 30 minutes to reach the cloud. The cloud will not wait for us."

Cloud seeding in the UAE began as far back as 2002, after Sheikh Zayed, the late President, initiated a study to measure its efficacy.

The findings showed the existence of the right kinds of clouds, into which planes can fire flares producing calcium and potassium chloride. These salts grow in size and weight when moisture in the air attaches to them, eventually forcing them out of the cloud and to the ground in the form of rain.

"Sheikh Zayed was thinking about the resources of water, and wanted there to be research on cloud seeding. The increasing population meant we needed more water. He was thinking about helping the people to live in the future.

"They experimented on clouds and got statistics to show the difference between seeded clouds and its precipitation, and unseeded clouds. There was a 15 to 20 per cent increase."

The majority of seeding takes place during the summer months, when one or more of the four pilots on call in Al Ain are dispatched three or four times a week. Two older planes can carry 10 flares, while the two newer aircraft can carry 20. The work is concentrated on the mountain range along the border with Oman.

Mr Al Musallam, an Emirati from Sharjah, describes this stretch of mountains as a "gift from God" to the UAE.

"Up until now, this is the main successful way to save water. But the experimentation cannot stop at this point. We cannot just rely on this. We have to do more studies. We need to follow what is happening outside in the world."

The senior forecaster says there are a lot of private companies across the globe who think they have found the "perfect solutions" for the UAE's water problems. "But most of them are just looking for money," he says. "Until now we have not found another source of water. We are doing as much as we can now, but I hope in the future someone will find another method to go side by side with our method."

Depleting water resources is not the only the only weather-related phenomena of concern to the NCMS. There are also other natural hazards that require daily monitoring.

Working alongside the forecasters is a team whose job it is to watch all the seismic activity around the region, particularly at the boundary of the smaller Arabian tectonic plate and the large Eurasian plate, which runs across southern Iran.

There is daily seismic movement within the centre's main area of interest. Fortunately the majority of it is low on the Richter scale.

Larger earthquakes in Pakistan and Iran can often be felt in the Emirates, particularly in the north-east of the country.

"We receive data from 23 seismic stations elsewhere, and 16 in the UAE," says Khalifa Abdulla Al Ebri, a 27-year-old Emirati who joined NCMS seven months ago. "We are seeing daily activity and if the epicentre is in Pakistan or Iran, the people in the Northern Emirates report that they have felt it."

Last month the centre detected three earthquakes in Fujairah, the biggest with a magnitude of 4.6 on the Richter scale with its epicentre 200km north-east of the main city.

A particular area of concern to the seismologists is the growing risk of induced seismicity, where human activity such as oil extraction affects the planet's crust.

There is also a need to ensure buildings can withstand a powerful earthquake. The largest earth tremor to hit the country took place in 1945, and registered 8.5 on the Richter scale.

"At that time there was no big buildings or structure, so there was not a lot of damage," says another seismologist. "But if that hit now, there would be a lot of destruction of buildings that do not match the building codes. But it is not possible to predict when this might happen. To do that you must have a lot of records, and we do not have these yet."

Records of the country's meteorological history are limited, which causes problems both in terms of tracking changes in climate and being able to make predictions.

But thanks to the work of the NCMS, there is now a bank of reliable and detailed data which will prove invaluable in the future.

"You cannot say 'yes there has been climate change' when you are looking at a five- or 10-year period," says Abdulwahed Al Hammadi, the acting head of the climate section."We need to look at 20, or 50 or 100 years, and the work we are doing today will make sure that we can do that in the future."