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cloud seeding

Written by Wardah Shahid 6:59 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Weather Modification: Unlocking the Science of Cloud Seeding

Cloud seeding is a method of weather modification to induce rain or snow by introducing certain substances into clouds. Wardah Shahid covers the science behind cloud seeding, its history, methods, and case studies, with a focus on the United Arab Emirates. She also addresses the ethical, legal, and environmental concerns associated with cloud seeding.
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About the Author(s)
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She is a graduate in Peace and Conflict Studies, from National Defence University, Islamabad. As a social science student, her focal points harbor critical analysis of the changing regional and global political dimensions.

Introduction

Weather monitoring has had a profound impact on managing micro-climates around the world, allowing states and international organizations to mitigate severe climatic conditions and water scarcity challenges. Cloud seeding, a type of climate engineering has sparked interest and debate since its inception some decades ago. 

Seeding clouds has been effectively acknowledged by countries such as the UAE, USA, and other European nations as a suitable climate adaptation strategy. Artificial rain is generated by injecting certain salts into the cloud, causing crystals to form which ultimately condense into rain or snow. With the promise of enriching water reservoirs, cloud seeding seems highly appealing but as with any technology, there are certain ethical, legal, and environmental concerns associated with it. 

This article explores the science behind cloud seeding by discussing its methods, case studies, overall effectiveness, and lastly strategies to overcome the risks contained within the process.

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What is Cloud Seeding?

Cloud seeding is the ultimate silver bullet in speeding up the natural water cycle process to produce rain. In this case, clouds are formed when water vapor in the atmosphere condenses around a tiny particle of dust or salt into water droplets (raindrops) or ice crystals (snowflakes). 

This process is stimulated when certain chemicals such as silver iodide or dry ice acting as ice nuclei are introduced into clouds, leading to the formation of ice crystals that condense into rain or snow depending on altitude. These water-attracting particles or salts compete with natural particles, thereby surpassing the cloud’s capacity to retain as much water as possible before it produces a larger drop. Such large drops trigger a droplet multiplication mechanism that enhances precipitation levels. This technique is made possible via aircraft flares, drones, ground-based generators, customized rockets, and artillery shells. Subsequently, this activity boosts rainfall rates by 20% according to the World Meteorological Organization.

History of Cloud Seeding

The supercharging of clouds has been a decades-old phenomenon, but recently its use by governments has accelerated, owing to irregular climatic events. Since its inception in the 1940s, cloud seeding has been used in the US by hydropower companies, ski resorts, and farmers, whose business flourished due to increased precipitation. 

The first experiment was conducted in 1946 by researcher Vincent Shaefer, who dropped six pounds of dry ice in clouds surrounding New York, the supercooled cloud led to immediate snowfall. Later on, during the 70’s, the experimentation took a wild turn as the US used weather modification as a military tool in the Vietnam War. ‘Operation Popeye’ led to an extended monsoon season with uncontrollable urban flooding. This led to the signing of the ‘Environmental Modification Convention’ in 1977 by the US, Russia, India, and some European nations prohibiting weather modification as a weapon of war. Despite, such moves, countries like the Russian Federation, Thailand, USA, China, and Australia are using this technology to suppress heat waves, counter droughts and regulate rainfall as done during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Amongst these countries, the UAE is a frequent user of cloud seeding to combat extreme heat and maximize agricultural production.

Methods of Cloud Seeding

The three methods of cloud seeding are as follows

  1. Static Cloud Seeding

This method uses silver iodide or other alternative substances which are injected into the cloud. The basic condition is that such clouds must have sufficient moisture already, so they can condense around the silver iodide crystal. The chemical mainly serves as a catalyst in effectively dispensing rainwater.

  1. Hygroscopic Cloud Seeding

Salts are dispersed through aircraft flares into the lower section of the clouds. The premise is that the salt gradually attracts water—leading to the formation of relatively large droplets, thus increasing the chances of precipitation.

  1. Dynamic Cloud Seeding

This technique is complex as it requires more logistical support in terms of speeding precipitation. The aim is to increase vertical air currents which support the passing of more moisture through the clouds, thereby translating into more rainfall.

United Arab Emirates (Dubai)

The UAE, a hot and arid country located in the Persian Gulf, has long been utilizing weather modification techniques such as cloud seeding to stave off extreme heat while addressing the dilemma of limited agricultural output. 

A basic weather profile indicates that temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius, while precipitation levels are as low as 200 millimeters of rainfall annually. Hence, to bolster water resources, the UAE has used this strategic approach since the 1990s to increase the amount of rain produced by the clouds above. In this regard, in the 2000s, the Vice President of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan allocated around 20 million dollars for further research into cloud seeding. The methodology for the program was further cemented when the UAE engaged with the “National Center for Atmospheric Research” in Colorado and NASA. Moreover, a task force called the “National Center of Meteorology” (NCM) was created by the government to oversee around 1000 hours of cloud seeding performed per year

In addition to this, a weather radar is constantly monitoring the nation’s atmosphere to target suitable cloud candidates for the experiment. Subsequently, the NCM also declares that instead of using silver iodide they have been producing their own seeding agent called “nanomaterial” which is three times more effective than the conventional chemical.

Pakistan (Lahore)

Pakistan’s mega city—Lahore has been grappling with worsened cases of air pollution due to the burning of crops and industrial waste, car exhaust, and smog. The 11 million residents of Lahore have been breathing in toxic smog and poisonous air with the discovery indicating alarming levels of particulate matter in the air i.e. 66 times the World Health Organization’s danger limits. In this regard, successive governments have been implementing measures such as smart lockdowns, spraying of water, and use of face masks to downgrade the effects of pollution. In this case, in a bid to combat the hazardous levels of smog, the United Arab Emirates along with the Punjab Environment Department carried out a successful cloud seeding experiment in Lahore on 16th December 2023, the first of its cases in a South Asian country. 

With teams from the UAE, the experiment was targeted in 10 hotspots where two planes used 48 flares to create artificial rain. This ground-breaking initiative was deemed successful as the air quality index improved from 354 to 189, with other neighboring countries like India also considering ‘blue-skying’ in its smog-affected cities.

Benefits and Consequences of Cloud Seeding 

BenefitsConsequences
1Cloud seeding could enhance water security by providing relief to drought-stricken areas.Can be used as a weapon of war by depriving certain regions of rainfall.
2Intercepting air pollution by helping it to settle down toxic particulate matter through rain. Contributing to air and water pollution, as the silver iodide or dry ice used may cause tangible risks to the natural ecosystems and human health.
3A major contributor to power generation—as witnessed in Tasmania, Australia.Increased precipitation in the form of rain and snow can cause abnormal weather patterns like urban flooding (e.g. UAE) and deathly blizzards.
4Can be successfully used to regulate weather conditions such as dispersing fog, suppressing hail, and reducing cloud cover as showcased through “Project Sky Water” in the USA.Costly, in terms of injecting the chemicals via aircraft and drones.
5Cooling urban heat by providing an optimal environment for people living in arid regions.Ethical and legal consequences, raising questions regarding the control and ownership of natural resources
6Contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Way Forward

Evaluating the dynamics of artificial rain, the following are some recommendations for effectively harnessing the cloud seeding technology.

  • Comprehensive Research: A proper investigation needs to be carried out to understand the science between cloud seeding, weather patterns, and climate systems to eliminate any lingering risks and potential pitfalls.
  • Partnership at the International Level: Due to its transnational nature, global partnerships are necessary to develop best practices for the use of artificial rain. Countries should pool resources and expertise to counter the challenges associated with cloud-seeding technology.
  • Ethical Considerations: Ethical and legal frameworks need to be drafted that are in line with scientific innovations and protecting the ecosystem.

Conclusion

The idea of influencing the sky has been in practice for decades. The mysterious interaction between technology and atmospheric phenomena has brought tangible benefits in the form of cloud seeding. It has been propelled to new heights as the current climate emergency has led governments and private companies to use cloud seeding as a means to ensure water security and thwart extreme temperatures. Despite its envisioned benefits, it also poses potential consequences in upsetting our ecology and climate stability. Therefore, a careful equilibrium needs to be established between scientific innovation and Mother Nature before signing off on the expansion of cloud seeding techniques. Monitoring and evaluation are pertinent to ensure a win-win situation where cautionary flags are discarded towards a more sustainable future.


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