What is cloud seeding and did it play any role in the Dubai floods?

by Li Cohen and Tracy J. Wholf at cbsnews.com

Stranded airline passengers and a cat submerged in floodwaters clinging to a car door handle became notable moments this week in Dubai as the normally arid city was inundated with historic levels of rain. Claims have gone viral that the deluge was brought on by cloud seeding, a technique that aims to increase precipitation, that is heavily utilized in the United Arab Emirates. 

But is it really to blame? 

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that getting to the bottom of the “record-shattering extreme rainfall” requires breaking down the science behind the event and the technique. 

“There’s currently a disconnect in the online discourse between the kind of human activities that likely did affect it (greenhouse warming) versus those which have actually been the focus of the online conversation thus far (cloud seeding), and what this means for how we collectively understand our ability to actively affect the weather on different spatial and temporal scales,” he said in an emailed statement. 

What is cloud seeding?

Many have questioned since the downpour in Dubai whether cloud seeding was to blame. But what is cloud seeding and how does it work exactly?

Cloud seeding is a technique used to improve precipitation. According to the Desert Research Institute, scientists do this by putting tiny particles called nuclei into the atmosphere that attach to clouds.

“These nuclei provide a base for snowflakes to form. After cloud seeding takes place, the newly formed snowflakes quickly grow and fall from the clouds back to the surface of the Earth, increasing snowpack and streamflow,” the institute says. 

In the Middle East, instead of precipitation in the form of snow, its cloud seeding program generates increased rain. 

Scientists typically go about cloud seeding in two ways – using either generators on the ground or distributing the nuclei via aircraft.

What caused the rain in Dubai? 

But was the rain in Dubai from cloud seeding? 

“Did cloud seeding play a role? Likely no,” Swain said. “But how about climate change? Likely yes!”