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regular-article-logo Friday, 31 May 2024

Dubai’s extraordinary flooding: Roles of cloud seeding unclear, here’s what to know

UAE officials said the 24-hour rain total Tuesday was the country’s largest since records there began in 1949. But parts of the nation had experienced an earlier round of thunderstorms just last month

Raymond Zhong Published 19.04.24, 01:11 PM
Vehicles drive through standing floodwater caused by heavy rain in Dubai

Vehicles drive through standing floodwater caused by heavy rain in Dubai PTI

Scenes of flood-ravaged neighbourhoods in one of the planet’s driest regions have stunned the world this week. Heavy rains in the United Arab Emirates and Oman submerged cars, clogged highways and killed at least 21 people. Flights out of Dubai’s airport, a major global hub, were severely disrupted.

The downpours weren’t a freak event — forecasters anticipated the storms several days out and issued warnings. But they were certainly unusual. Here’s what to know.

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Heavy rain there is rare, but not unheard-of

On average, the Arabian Peninsula receives a scant few inches of rain a year, although scientists have found that a sizeable chunk of that precipitation falls in infrequent but severe bursts, not as periodic showers.

UAE officials said the 24-hour rain total Tuesday was the country’s largest since records there began in 1949. But parts of the nation had experienced an earlier round of thunderstorms just last month.

Oman, with its coastline on the Arabian Sea, is also vulnerable to tropical cyclones. Past storms there have brought torrential rain, powerful winds and mudslides, causing extensive damage.

Global warming is projected to intensify downpours

Stronger storms are a key consequence of human-caused global warming. As the atmosphere gets hotter, it can hold more moisture, which can eventually make its way down to the surface as rain or snow.

But that doesn’t mean rainfall patterns are changing in precisely the same way across every corner of the globe.

In their latest assessment of climate research, scientists convened by the United Nations found that there wasn’t enough data to have firm conclusions about rainfall trends in the Arabian Peninsula and how climate change was affecting them. The researchers said, however, that if global warming were to be allowed to continue worsening in the coming decades, extreme downpours in the region would quite likely become more intense and more frequent.

The role of cloud seeding isn’t clear

The UAE has for decades worked to increase rainfall and boost water supplies by seeding clouds. Essentially, this involves shooting particles into clouds to encourage the moisture to gather into larger, heavier droplets, ones that are more likely to fall as rain or snow.

Cloud seeding and other rain-enhancement methods have been tried across the world, including in Australia, China, India, Israel, South Africa and the United States. Studies have found that these operations can, at best, affect precipitation modestly — enough to turn a downpour into a bigger downpour, but probably not a drizzle into a deluge.

Still, experts said pinning down how much seeding might have contributed to this week’s storms would require detailed study.

“In general, it is quite a challenge to assess the impact of seeding,” said Luca Delle Monache, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Delle Monache has been leading efforts to use artificial intelligence to improve the UAE’s rain-enhancement program.

An official with the UAE’s National Center of Meteorology, Omar Al Yazeedi, told news outlets this week that the agency didn’t conduct any seeding during the latest storms. His statements didn’t make clear, however, whether that was also true in the hours or days before.

Al Yazeedi didn’t respond to emailed questions from The New York Times on Thursday, and Adel Kamal, a spokesperson for the centre, didn’t immediately have further comment.

Cities in dry places just aren’t designed for floods

Wherever it happens, flooding isn’t just a matter of how much rain comes down. It’s also about what happens to all that water once it’s on the ground — most critically, in the places people live.

Cities in arid regions often aren’t designed to drain very effectively. In these areas, paved surfaces block rain from seeping into the earth below, forcing it into drainage systems that can easily become overwhelmed.

One recent study of Sharjah, the capital of the third-largest emirate in the UAE, found that the city’s rapid growth over the past half-century had made it vulnerable to flooding at far lower levels of rain than before.

The New York Times News Service

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