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You’d think the idea that humans can modify the weather would be exciting.
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By Paul McAdory
Driving coastward through Mississippi last month, I hit rain. First it spat at the windshield, a few drops sprinkling down from the sky onto a 2009 Accord. Then the bucket tipped, the road disappearing into smudges of light and water cascading on glass in the milliseconds between frantic wiper swipes. I eased into a doughnut shop’s flooded parking lot and settled in to watch.
I was reminded of that downpour by an arresting series of short videos posted to Instagram last month by the United Arab Emirates’ National Center of Meteorology. In one, we see cars speeding through heavy rain while palm fronds shiver and the sun peers meekly through clouds, casting the scene in sepia tones. In another, we see the effects of a deluge: flooded streets, stationary vehicles, brown water streaming over sand. A third shows S.U.V.s traversing what appears to be a bumper-deep lake.
It bears repeating that we are looking at the U.A.E. — specifically, at its cutting-edge highways, which are engineered to withstand extreme temperatures, allowing drivers to safely cross the desert on their way to ultramodern cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We might expect to observe heat radiating off asphalt; we might expect sand, swept up by traffic, glinting in the overwhelming brightness. Instead, rain dumps down and bounces from the blacktop. The videographer’s slow pans from side to side seem to channel our incredulity. This is scarcely believable in a country where annual precipitation usually hovers around four inches. It’s as if every detail is being recorded, more than once, so the proof becomes incontrovertible. And whatever surprise you experience at seeing it may redouble when you read, via reports in The Washington Post, The Independent and elsewhere, that this surreal footage was a result of a technology called cloudseeding, which the U.A.E. has been refining for more than a decade.
Those reports may be slightly exaggerated. Cloudseeding traditionally refers to a set of weather-modification techniques in which a substance — salt, or silver iodide, or dry ice — is fired into a cloud to enhance precipitation, not single-handedly create it. For years, this has been done by planes; more recently, unmanned drones have been tried, releasing electrical charges that can have a similar effect. In theory, the seeding creates an attractive substrate for water molecules to coalesce around, forming droplets or crystals dense enough to fall to the ground without evaporating.
Whatever power these videos want to convey will always be dwarfed by a greater one.
The U.A.E. is exploring this technology because its climate is dry and hot, and getting hotter as the planet warms. So far this year, temperatures have topped 125 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the country. Complicating matters further is the Emirates’ exploding population: From 2005 to 2010, it nearly doubled, to about 8.5 million, and it now hovers around 10 million. More people need more water, and only 4 percent of the U.A.E.’s supply comes from renewable sources. To make up the difference, and to conserve what water it does have, the country has turned to desalination, which is expensive, and to cloudseeding, which is relatively cheap — and, assuming it can work at scale, may have the added benefit of temporarily making both the air and the nation’s social-media content cooler.
It’s unclear whether the 14 cloudseeding flights the U.A.E. conducted in the week before those heavy rains even targeted the clouds responsible. But it certainly behooves the state to sow optimism, and the National Center of Meteorology often publishes simulations and announcements tagged #cloud_seeding, followed by videos of inundated roadways. The same confusion surrounds the technology in general. Despite large weather-modification programs, like the one in China, many scientists remain unconvinced that the process reliably increases rainfall. (There is some evidence that it can modestly increase snowfall in certain circumstances, but for complex reasons, experimental evidence on warm-weather clouds hasn’t been conclusive.) If it does reliably work, no one’s sure how much precipitation it can produce or whether there’s a risk of it working too well and causing dangerous flooding.
Experts also disagree over whether generating rain this way might result in less precipitation for downwind areas, which means accusations of rain theft abound. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your mind around: If you’re suffering drought while the people upwind are cheering their ability to wring water from passing clouds, you may not be inclined to wait around for expert consensus.
Attempts to summon rain are hardly a new activity for human beings. For millenniums, we’ve had prayers and rituals and outlandish inventions geared to the purpose — as well as many that aimed to do the opposite, warding off storms and floods. At first glance, what these videos from the Emirates want to document is the closing of a loop: human ingenuity transforming the fantasy of weather manipulation into effective practices of control. The U.A.E. demanded rain, and there was rain, and it was good public relations. The Emirati government, after all, presides over a scorching nation whose economy depends on the export of crude oil. It has a strong interest in presenting itself as potent enough to manage the fallout of climate change by, say, making water fall from the sky.
Like a lot of P.R., the videos show us something with miraculous overtones but wind up provoking anxiety instead. Confronted with evidence that we may have achieved one of humanity’s perennial goals — control, however partial, over the weather, which we used to commend to the whims of gods and nature — you might expect to feel some shred of pride or triumph. But then the context clicks. Humans, you remember, have already managed to alter not just the weather but the climate of the entire planet, a change of such magnitude that the idea of using drones to milk the clouds over a small patch of desert feels paltry and insignificant. As the videos loop, you begin to discern that this fact lurks in the background of each one, haunting the images. Whatever power they want to convey will always be dwarfed by a greater one.
It may well be that human engineering of the environment, or technologies for things like carbon capture, are vital parts of our future on the planet. It is, at the very least, fascinating to consider their possibilities. But what’s most deflating about these videos may be what they tell us about how those possibilities will become realities — not as part of some international consensus to limit our damage to the Earth but, perhaps, because they are unilaterally deployed by wealthy nations or billionaire monarchs. And used, in the end, simply to improve the weather at home — or to project to the world, and to Instagram, that someone holds the power to make any desert bloom.
Watching rain pound down on Emirati highways, alongside news reports suggesting that it was provoked by humankind, captivated me for a moment. The videos offered an attractive portrait of human mastery, a fleeting sense of wonder and hope. Then the moment passed, along with the vague fantasy of our ability to prevent the fatal sweep of sea and heat over so much life. My awe shriveled. I wasn’t looking at a storm like the one in Mississippi. I was looking at content.
Source photograph: Shutterstock.
Paul McAdory is a writer and an editor from Mississippi who lives in Brooklyn. He last wrote about his pet snake for the magazine.
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