Speed Reads

Making it rain

Middle East and North Africa are in a dubious arms race to make it rain through cloud seeding

Cloud seeding — injecting chemicals into clouds to make it rain, or stop raining — has been around for 75 years. But as the changing climate decreases rainfall in already arid places, some countries in the Middle East and North Africa are trying to crack the rain code, The New York Times reports. The U.S. developed cloud-seeding, and China has the world's most ambitious program, but in the Middle East and North Africa, "the unquestioned regional leader is the United Arab Emirates."

"And as wealthy countries like the emirates pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort," the Times reports, "other nations are joining the race, trying to ensure that they do not miss out on their fair share of rainfall before others drain the heavens dry — despite serious questions about whether the technique generates enough rainfall to be worth the effort and expense." There's also no evidence a country can drain a rain cloud at the expense of a downwind neighbor.

Iran, Morocco, and Ethiopia already have cloud-seeding programs, Saudi Arabia just started its own large-scale initiative, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries are considering jumping in. On the other hand, Israel, an early pioneer of cloud-seeding, halted its 50-year-old program in 2021 because it proved to be "not economically efficient," University of Tel Aviv's Pinhas Alpert tells the Times

The head of the UAE program, however, says its cloud-seeding efforts are working, thanks in part to a new substance that uses nanotechnology developed at Abu Dhabi's Khalifa University. The UAE currently meets its outsize water needs — its residents use about 147 gallons of water a day, versus the global average of 47 gallons, according to a 2021 emirates-funded study — through expensive desalination plants. Successful cloud-seeding would be cheaper. 

But it is also an unpredictable science. Cloud-seeding evidently led to flooding in Dubai in the summer of 2019, for example. "You can modify a cloud, but you can't tell it what to do after you modify it," James Fleming, an atmospheric scientist and historian of science at Colby College in Maine, tells the Times. "It might snow; it might dissipate. It might go downstream; it might cause a storm in Boston." Read more about cloud-seeding and the UAE's experiments at The New York Times.