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Can Geoengineering Help Solve the Middle East’s Water Woes?

Words by Leon Kaye

Geoengineering has fomented plenty of controversy as a means of avoiding the risks of climate change. As the argument goes, long-term plans to mitigate climate change, such as the agreement reached at the COP21 talks in Paris last month, cannot happen fast enough to prevent this global warming car-crash from occurring. Radical actions may have risk, but the risk is not doing enough or fast enough, which is why some leaders such as Bill Gates have touted geoengineering in recent years. Ideas for geoengineering span the map, including ocean fertilization to create a massive marine carbon sink, carbon air capture, carbon capture and storage, enhanced weathering, and cloud seeding.

Opponents of geoengineering point out the the risk of a wide-scale project going awry is reason enough to nix those ideas before they become reality. Nevertheless, the concept is sprouting all kinds of ideas from entrepreneurs and startups across the world.

One geoengineering idea that has caught on in the United Arab Emirates is cloud seeding or, as it's called here, rain enhancement science. Home to 9.2 million people with population growth showing no signs of slowing down, the UAE is sorting out new approaches for water security. Desalination, while becoming increasingly energy efficient, is still an energy hog. The country’s aquifers are becoming rapidly depleted. And in a nation where all those wares in the hypermarket aisles are 99 percent imported, food security is also on the UAE leadership’s mind.

To that end, last year the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi. One year later, this organization announced the first US$5 million in research grants distributed to accelerate the advancement of this long-touted but still unproven science. The UAE is so bullish about cloud seeding’s potential that the awardees of these first grants were feted at a posh ceremony at the lavish Emirates Palace Hotel on Tuesday night during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

The three scientists leading research teams, who shared this program’s first round of awards, include Masataka Murakami, a professor from the Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research in Nogoya, Japan. His project is centered on algorithms and sensors that will strive to identify clouds with the most potential for seeding. Linda Zou, an environmental engineering professor at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, has long focused on how nanotechnology can hasten water condensation and how those technologies can be applied to cloud seeding. Finally, Volker Wulfmeyer, a professor of physics and meteorology at Germany’s University of Hohenheim, will research cloud seeding optimization in addition to processes such as land-cover modification to improve precipitation.

So, for those who think cloud seeding is a fringe science, tell that to the 325 scientists from 151 organizations who applied to participate in the UAE’s program. Cloud seeding has been a nascent technology in part because the funds for supporting its research were hard to come by. The UAE, however, is pursuing this science full throttle, which for the next several years will give many scientists and startups hope that bold ideas to take on climate change can actually mitigate its effects and prevent future droughts.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Disclosure: Leon Kaye’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week expenses were provided by Masdar

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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