The Middle East, already on the edge of human habitability due to extreme heat, could become unlivable by mid-century due to rising temperatures and falling water tables. In an effort to insulate the region from worsening conditions, the United Arab Emirates has turned to a, uh, unique solution: electrical charge-shooting drones that could help juice rainfall.
Humans have tried various strategies over the millennia to coax rain from the sky, and in the past century those efforts have become more advanced: We’ve used dynamite, silver iodide, and small particles injected into clouds via planes or even anti-aircraft guns. But the UAE is using a technology unimaginable to the rainmakers who roved the Southern Plains during the Dust Bowl.
Footage recently released by the UAE weather agency shows heavy rain falling in the desert. The fat droplets falling were reportedly the result of a pilot test of the drones. Using unmanned drones that discharge electricity may sound a little foolhardy in the midst of storm clouds, but that electricity could be a key ingredient in getting rain to fall.
Clouds are made up water droplets, which are too tiny to fall out of the sky (hence, clouds exist). The electrical charges essentially encourage those small droplets to collide and condense into bigger ones that do eventually get heavy enough to fall as rain. In a country like the UAE, however, even drops that are big enough to fall as rain can often evaporate before reaching the ground owing to the very low humidity. The electrical charging technique could help fatten those droplets up enough to reach the desert floor and replenish a water table that’s been sinking due the region’s rapacious growth.
The researchers at the University of Reading who are behind the system have spent time modeling it as well as doing balloon-based tests over the past year to gauge its efficacy. Earlier this year, the drone tests began.
The UAE is hardly the only country to turn to cloud seeding in recent years. China has a major plan to seed clouds from the heights of the Himalayas, while South Korea and Thailand have used cloud seeding to make it rain and battle pollution. Last year, Indonesia overloaded clouds with particles to try and make it stop raining. Different climates respond differently to cloud seeding, and while its widely used, it’s still seen as a bit of a meteorological crapshoot, given the intricacies of doing it right and limited results.
The Middle East could use a little more rain. The highest annual average rainfall total in UAE is less than 4 inches (10.2 centimeters). At the same time, the country has one of the highest water consumption rates in the world per person, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration. That’s put heavy pressure on the aquifers underneath it. Government figures also show the country desalinates 42% of its water, though that’s an expensive and energy-intensive process. Cloud seeding—or I guess more accurately, cloud zapping—could help recharge aquifers and take some of the strain of desalination plants. (Water conservation, instead of building lavish oases in the desert, might also be a good strategy, but that’s just one man’s thoughts.)
The Emirates are expected to get drier, and so that makes finding water resources from anywhere, including electrified clouds, a priority. But more rain will only address one part of the country’s climate woes. In addition to drying out, the country is expected to heat up dramatically. If carbon emissions continue rising unfettered, the country could warm a shocking 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 degrees Celsius) by mid-century alone, according to data collected by the World Bank. Even a world where leaders get their act together and meet the Paris Agreement goals could still be catastrophic in terms of drought and warming. That means, in all likelihood, it’s going to take more than fancy drones to help the UAE.