Home FinanceEnergy & Environment Dubai Is Using Laser Drones To Shock Rainwater Out Of The Sky

Dubai Is Using Laser Drones To Shock Rainwater Out Of The Sky

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The United Arab Emirates have been hit particularly hard by this season’s sweltering heat, recording a 51.8°C this June (that’s over 125° Fahrenheit for the Americans in the room). What’s worse, Dubai receives a paltry 4-inches of rainfall annually, making summers unbearable and agriculture nearly impossible (the country imports more than 80% of its food). As people do their best to stay inside, cool, and hydrated, experts at the country’s National Center of Meteorology have introduced a novel technology to make a world of difference: using drones to force precipitation via laser beams.

The science is called cloud seeding, and it has existed in various forms for several decades. Adding certain substances or chemicals, such as silver iodide, to existing clouds can induce rain or snow. You might recall stories of efforts by China to ensure clear skies before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, or an accident where Russia mistakenly dropped a very much non-powderized block of cement onto some poor Muscovite home. 

Given that the byproducts of these weather altering missions will quite literally be raining down on people’s heads, crops, and drinking water, there are significant safety concerns surround cloud seeding. Some fear that accumulated particles might linger, eventually proving carcinogenic to humans or harmful to the local environment.

The UAE have invested more than $15 million on 9 ‘rain enhancement projects’ over the years, the first 8 of which used traditional cloud seeding methods. But the country is now taking a different approach in their quest for water security. Rather than dispersing particulates as done in traditional cloud seeding, the Emirati Weather Center is using drones to ‘zap’ the air into submission. These drones are designed to target certain clouds and use electrical discharges via concentrated lasers to forcibly pool water droplets in the air, thus triggering desired rainfall. With the equivalent of an atmospheric cattle prod, Dubai has achieved just that — depicted in several videos posted to Instagram —  electrocuting the air into rain.

The question is whether the rest of the world will follow their example. The traditional form of cloud seeding is already used in the U.S. by eight western states, particularly in the Upper Colorado River Basin. There are companies like Weather Modification Inc. claiming expertise in using silver iodide to trigger heavier rainfall or snow. Until recently — and even now, to some extent — determining the efficacy of such projects has been difficult.

If a fleet of drones can address a drought in a viable, cost-effective manner, it would be a mistake to write off potentially world-changing benefits. That said, such gains are not reason to fully throw caution to the wind with powerful technology. The risks of induced rain are less obvious to laymen than the risks of Bill Gates plotting to dim the sun, but some experts are worried that the process could inadvertently trigger flooding. A discussion might be warranted on private weather drone ownership, if inclement weather can result from an attempt to force a snow day.

More troublesome though is a threat which will remain even should the process be proven entirely risk-free. Water security is a priority for every country. Without water, there is no life, no agriculture, and no country. Wars have been and are being fought over water access. The Horn of Africa is boiling over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and control of the Nile, a river which has brought both prosperity and conflict to the region for millennia. Egypt and Sudan are threatening war against Ethiopia over the dam’s potential to deprive downstream states of water, although thus far they have they have expressed hopes for “preventive diplomacy” averting a true conflict. Whether tensions escalate or subside will depend largely on international pressure.

On the other end of the Persian Gulf from the UAE, the heat has triggered a severe drought in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan region, with the government violently repressing desperate protesters. If cloud seeding becomes more mainstream,  it is easy to imagine the Iranian regime (or other authoritarians) using weather modification as a weapon against internal and external opposition, or blaming a neighbors’ seeding efforts as the source of domestic weather woes.

A hot or thirsty country triggering rainfall to the detriment of their neighbors is arguably taking what’s not theirs. The jurisdiction over not yet fallen rain “resources” will be tricky, with no applicable international law regulating the issue directly. The geopolitical implications would become more troubling as calls for restitution are likely to escalate. If controlling the weather is a luxury of the powerful and wealthy, water access may become a tool of pressure or a trigger of conflict. A four decades-old UN convention bans “hostile use of environmental modification techniques,” for what that is worth, and international outcry is likely should a country seek to inflict an endless dry season upon their opponents.

Still, the settling of claims and conflicts over “stolen” rain will be a new and problematic form of dispute for the world particularly if the summers are likely to remain as hot as this one.

With assistance from Daniel Tomares



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