The climate crisis is heating up the planet like never before. Residents of Portland, Oregon felt record-breaking heat in June 2021 when temperatures reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit, and in July, Lytton, B.C. broke a record when temperatures soared to 121.3F.
The United Arab Emirates often sees similar temperatures, along with very little rainfall – an average of fewer than four inches annually, resulting in droughts. Now, weather-controlling drones could help to combat this deadly water shortage.
Cloud seeding success
The UAE has invested $15 million in nine different rain-enhancement projects – one of which is the rain-controlling drones engineered by the University of Reading. The drones don't create rain themselves but help to jump-start rain production via cloud seeding. They "zap" the clouds with an electric charge, subsequently charging the droplets inside. Since the beginning of 2021, the National Center of Meteorology (NCM) has conducted 126 instances of cloud seeding.
"What we are trying to do is to make the droplets inside the clouds big enough so that when they fall out of the cloud, they survive down to the surface," explained Keri Nicoll, one of the core investigators on the project.
The technique has successfully created rain over Dubai and has even resulted in safety warnings for drivers over slippery roads.
Of course, not everyone believes it's a good idea to mess with natural weather patterns. Some experts argue that the cloud seeding technique is resulting in dangerous flooding. Sufian Farrah, meteorologist and cloud seeding expert at the NCM, doesn't agree, though. “We only enhance the amount of rain; we are not creating floods. Even some clouds we avoid seeding, because it would be too dangerous for the aircraft to penetrate them," he explained to Wired.
Still, the technique can result in other potential dangers. In addition to cloud seeding with electrical charges, the UAE – and other areas of the world – also use chemicals to generate rain. Professor Linda Zou, for example, developed a new aerosol material for use in cloud seeding using salt crystals coated in titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The material is currently being tested in the U.S.
While scientists are optimistic about the material's impact on rain, titanium dioxide nanoparticles’ are classified as “possible carcinogens" to humans” by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
As we continue seeing headlines about "once-in-a-lifetime" weather events week after week, we will likely also continue seeing innovative engineering solutions used to combat their effects. Keep an eye out for drones, and don't forget an umbrella.