Dubai flooded. The side effects of “cloud seeding” affect the Emirates

By the end of yesterday, more than 142mm of water had drenched Dubai in 24 hours, dumping more than a year and a half of rain on the desert city-state in just a few hours and flooding major highways and the international airport.

On social networks, especially TikTok, there are thousands of “before the storm” videos. The sky suddenly turning dark at two in the afternoon, then green. The gusts of wind that sweep away chairs, armchairs and vases from the balconies, in a whirlwind of water that sent the Emirates into a tailspin.

Although the city is now preparing for the second wave of bad weather, reflection on the nature of these truly unusual water storms is urgently needed.

For some time now, a mission has been underway in Dubai: cloud seeding. Literally it involves “seeding the clouds”, a technique that aims to change the quantity and type of precipitation through the dispersion of chemical substances in the clouds that act as condensation nuclei to promote precipitation. This process involves the dispersion of tiny particles in clouds, which facilitate the aggregation of water droplets and the formation of rain. The National Center of Meteorology (NCM) is in charge of the cloud seeding program, which focuses its activities on specific cloud formations in the mountains to the northeast, where summer precipitation is most likely.

Over the past two decades, the UAE has seen notable success in cloud seeding missions, positioning itself as a leader in the technology and as one of the first Gulf countries to adopt this approach to boost rainfall and address water shortages, especially in the summer months.

This approach is based on the use of environmentally friendly materials, such as potassium or sodium chlorides, which, once dispersed in the clouds, favor an increase in precipitation. Furthermore, nano-materials are used, coated with titanium dioxide, which amplify the effectiveness of the operation, increasing the amount of rain up to three times compared to hygroscopic materials.
Cloud seeding missions are primarily performed via aircraft, such as the Beechcraft KingAir C90, which disperse materials directly beneath the clouds. This process uses updrafts within clouds to grow water droplets and generate precipitation.

Although the cloud seeding project dates back to 1982, the cloud seeding program began in early 2001 through collaboration with international organizations such as the National Center Of Atmospheric Research in Colorado, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and NASA in the United States with the primary objective of improving the country's water security by contributing to the research and development of new techniques for increasing precipitation.

Looking to the future, thirteen years later, and especially looking at yesterday's torrential rains and the ongoing climate change around the world, the doubt that cloud seeding contributed to the flooding of Dubai is more than legitimate.

Dubai was inundated with more than 142 mm of rain, an exceptional weather event for the city. Under normal conditions, Dubai International Airport averages 94.7mm of rain per year, but this sudden surge has far exceeded that figure. The airport, the world's busiest for international travel and a main hub for Emirates airline, was severely affected by torrential rain with taxiways becoming submerged in puddles of water, forcing the airport to suspend arrivals on Tuesday night. Access to the airport has also been seriously affected: today a statement was issued warning that the impact of the flooding has been so far-reaching that there are currently “limited transport options” due to the adverse weather conditions with Emirates had to suspend check-in for passengers coming from the airport from 8am until midnight today.

Schools across the UAE closed ahead of the storm's arrival, and many government employees were asked to work remotely. But with streets flooded and a city bustling with business, thousands of cars have been trapped by the waters blocking their engines. Local authorities sent tanker trucks to pump water away from streets and highways, but several homes were flooded, forcing residents to empty them. No overall damage estimate has yet been provided, but in Ras al-Khaimah, the country's northernmost emirate, police reported the death of a 70-year-old man swept away by flood waters. Fujairah, an emirate on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, recorded the most rain, with 145 mm of precipitation on Tuesday alone. The authorities closed schools and re-established the smart working regime for Wednesday. Other countries in the region also recorded rainfall, including Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In neighboring Oman, at least 18 people have been killed in heavy rains in recent days, including 10 children swept away in a vehicle during a flood.

If the effectiveness of cloud seeding operations is continuously monitored through meteorological data collection and precipitation analysis to ensure the accuracy and effectiveness of the program, allowing strategies to be adapted according to atmospheric conditions and to optimize the use of resources, however something seems to have gone wrong today. Despite everything, rain is an unusual phenomenon in the United Arab Emirates where it occurs only occasionally during the winter months. The lack of adequate drainage infrastructure makes flooding a serious problem even with relatively moderate rainfall.