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What is cloud seeding (or artificial rain)?
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Blog...What is cloud seeding (or artificial rain)?

What is cloud seeding (or artificial rain)?

Ecology News
Global Warming
clouds
What is cloud seeding? How does it work? Are there any potential risks involved? Can artificial rain be deployed as an effective tool in the fight against climate change?
Ecology News
2024-07-04T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
clouds

Cloud seeding, also known as artificial rainmaking, is a technique used to enhance precipitation. Developed decades ago, this method has attracted significant interest and debate. This article delves into the science behind cloud seeding, exploring its methods, global applications, and the discussions around its effectiveness and environmental impact, particularly in the context of climate change. As cloud seeding becomes more widely used, understanding its potential benefits and risks is crucial for shaping future environmental strategies.

👉 What is cloud seeding? How does it work? Are there any potential risks involved? Can artificial rain be deployed as an effective tool in the fight against climate change?

What is cloud seeding?

Artificial rain, also known as cloud seeding is what's known as a weather modification technique. It artificially alters the weather by enhancing the ability of clouds to produce so-called “artificial rain” or snow, which can help meet the precipitation needs of a particular region. 

The technique might sound like something from a science fiction movie but the idea dates back to World War II and is currently practiced in many regions worldwide. 

Cloud seeding can enhance precipitation in drought-prone areas, supporting agricultural productivity, and ensuring water supply for human consumption. It can also mitigate severe weather impacts, such as reducing hail size to minimize damage and dispersing fog to improve visibility and safety, particularly around airports.

Additionally, cloud seeding provides a strategic tool to manage and adapt to the effects of climate change, such as cooling urban heat islands and supporting ecosystem health during droughts. Overall, it is a valuable technique for managing water resources and mitigating extreme weather conditions.

💡 Did you know? According to the United Nations, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million more are approaching this situation.

Yet, even though cloud seeding is now commonplace it has a somewhat controversial history, with concerns raised around its effectiveness and potential to cause harm. As the fight against climate change heats up, the practice is increasingly coming under scrutiny and the question is raised: is cloud seeding an effective weapon against global warming, or does it cause more harm than good? 

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How does cloud seeding work?

Cloud seeding creates artificial rain by injecting substances such as silver iodide, potassium iodide, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide), liquid propane, or salt into clouds to induce precipitation. By dispersing these substances the processes within the cloud are altered and precipitation can be improved. 

How do clouds form?

Clouds are composed of tiny water droplets or ice crystals that form when water vapor in our atmosphere cools and condenses around a particle of dust or salt floating in the air. Cloud seeding stimulates this process by introducing particles that act as ice nuclei, allowing ice crystals to form, which when heavy enough fall to Earth as rain or snow. 

Effects of cloud seeding

The effects of cloud seeding depend on the conditions of the cloud into which the substance is introduced. For example, snowfall can be induced instead of rain when a substance such as silver iodide is introduced into subfreezing clouds (clouds with temperatures of between -20 and -7 degrees Celsius). The substance acts as an ice nucleus and allows snowflakes to form around it.

💡 Research from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) suggests that cloud seeding can enhance precipitation by up to 15% in ideal conditions.

Cloud seeding outcomes:

rain clouds

Cloud seeding methods

The process of releasing seeding substances is accomplished using either ground-based dispersion mechanisms, such as generators or canisters launched from anti-aircraft guns or rockets or through aerial deployment from aircraft.

There are three main methods used to conduct cloud seeding:

  • Static cloud seeding - Static cloud seeding involves the release of chemicals such as silver iodide into clouds. The silver iodide (or alternative substance) provides a crystal around which moisture can condense. This moisture is already present in the clouds, but the silver iodide makes the clouds much more effective at dispensing their water. 
  • Dynamic cloud seeding - Dynamic cloud seeding works by supporting vertical air currents, which in turn allows more moisture to pass through the clouds, thereby leading to more rain. The process is more complex than static cloud seeding and it requires larger volumes of seeding material. 
  • Hygroscopic cloud seeding - Hygroscopic cloud seeding involves the dispersal of salts through flares or explosives into the lower section of the clouds. It speeds up droplet coalescence leading to the formation of large droplets that lead to precipitation.

Where is cloud seeding used?

Cloud seeding has been adopted by over fifty different countries around the world for a variety of different reasons: for example to increase water supply, enhance rain for agriculture, reduce hail damage, or even to disperse fog. Some of the most notable examples include: 

The United States

In the United States, states like California, Texas, and Colorado - which frequently face water scarcity issues - seed clouds to increase precipitation.

  • California: Cloud seeding projects are implemented in various watersheds to increase water supply in reservoirs. For instance, during the California drought from 2012 to 2016, cloud seeding was used to augment water supplies. The state continues to use this method to enhance snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains, crucial for water storage and supply.
  • Colorado: Colorado has one of the most extensive cloud seeding programs aimed at increasing snowfall in mountainous regions. These efforts help to bolster the state’s water supply, which is vital for both agriculture and urban areas.
  • Texas: In Texas, cloud seeding is used primarily to increase rainfall in agricultural areas. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation oversees these operations, focusing on enhancing precipitation to support the state's significant agricultural industry.

Middle East

The Middle East, characterized by its arid conditions, has turned to cloud seeding as a means to secure water resources.

  • United Arab Emirates (UAE): The UAE has heavily invested in cloud seeding research and operations. The country conducts regular cloud seeding flights, using aircraft equipped to disperse salt particles into clouds. This initiative aims to increase rainfall, providing much-needed water in the desert climate. In recent years, the UAE has even explored the use of drones to enhance cloud seeding efficiency.
  • Saudi Arabia: Similarly, Saudi Arabia has implemented cloud seeding projects to address water scarcity. These projects are part of the country’s broader strategy to improve water security and manage resources more sustainably.

China

China is a global leader in cloud seeding and operates one of the world's most extensive cloud seeding programs. In fact, every Chinese city has a local cloud-seeding plan, implemented by officials and researchers, in partnership with the military.

  • Beijing Olympics 2008: During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China used cloud seeding to reduce air pollution and ensure favorable weather conditions for the event. This involved dispersing silver iodide particles to induce rainfall, thereby clearing the air of pollutants.
  • Current and Future Plans: China continues to expand its weather modification programs, aiming to cover an area greater than the size of India by 2025. These efforts are not only focused on enhancing precipitation but also on mitigating the effects of severe weather and managing agricultural water supply.

Australia

Australia has also utilized cloud seeding, especially in regions like Tasmania and New South Wales.

  • Tasmania: In Tasmania, a cloud seeding program has been implemented to enhance rainfall for hydroelectric power generation. Hydro Tasmania, the state’s largest electricity generator, has conducted such operations to increase inflows to reservoirs.
  • New South Wales: In New South Wales, cloud seeding efforts have focused on increasing rainfall to support agriculture and water supply in drought-affected areas.

Europe

Several European countries have undertaken cloud seeding projects to address various environmental and economic needs.

  • France: In France, cloud seeding is primarily used to increase precipitation in mountainous regions. This is particularly important for boosting water reserves and supporting ski resorts during the winter season.
  • Spain: Spain has conducted operations to enhance rainfall in agricultural regions, particularly in areas prone to drought.

💡 This widespread adoption of cloud seeding technology reflects a growing interest in weather modification as a tool to mitigate water scarcity and support agriculture. However, it's important to note that the effectiveness and environmental impacts of cloud seeding continue to be topics of debate among scientists and environmentalists. Despite its increasing use, there remains a need for more comprehensive research to fully understand the implications of cloud seeding in different climatic conditions.

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Is artificial rain harmful?

The debate around the safety and efficacy of cloud seeding encompasses several issues including environmental, ethical, and meteorological concerns. Despite its growing popularity as a method to enhance rainfall, it's currently unclear as to whether cloud seeding poses a risk. In recent years the practice has attracted scrutiny for its potential environmental impact and the broader implications of artificially altering weather patterns.

Environmental concerns

One of the main concerns with cloud seeding is its potential environmental impact. The use of chemicals like silver iodide raises questions about the long-term effects on ecosystems. While silver iodide is considered relatively low in toxicity, its accumulation in the environment and possible effects on wildlife and water quality are areas of ongoing research. 

Moreover, the injection of other substances like dry ice or salt into the atmosphere could also have unforeseen ecological consequences, which is why thorough and continuous environmental monitoring is necessary to determine the impact of these substances on the environment.

Meteorological implications

Another critical aspect of the debate is the meteorological effects of cloud seeding. There are concerns that altering precipitation patterns in one area could inadvertently affect weather systems in another, leading to unforeseen changes in local climates. These unintended consequences could potentially disrupt natural weather cycles, impacting agriculture and ecosystems in regions beyond the targeted area.

Ethical and legal considerations

The ethical and legal dimensions of cloud seeding also contribute to its controversy. The idea of manipulating weather raises questions about ownership and control of natural resources. There are potential conflicts over water rights and concerns about the equity of water distribution, particularly in regions where water scarcity is a pressing issue. Furthermore, the potential for cross-border impacts of cloud seeding operations poses challenges in international law and diplomacy.

Intentional weather manipulation

The manipulation of weather systems for military or civilian use has raised ethical and political concerns. Historical instances, such as "Operation Popeye" during the Vietnam War, where cloud seeding was used to disrupt enemy supply lines, highlight the potential for weather modification to be weaponized.

This led to the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), formally the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, an international treaty that prohibits the military or hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects. The convention came into force in October 1978 and bans weather warfare. However, it should be noted that 101 UN member states have not signed the treaty.

Effectiveness and efficiency

Questions also linger over the effectiveness and efficiency of cloud seeding. While there have been successful cases of increased precipitation, the overall reliability and predictability of these outcomes remain uncertain. The variability in cloud conditions and the complexity of atmospheric processes make it difficult to standardize and consistently replicate successful cloud seeding operations.

In light of these controversies, the future of cloud seeding hinges on comprehensive scientific research and international collaboration. It's essential to develop a deeper understanding of the atmospheric and ecological effects of cloud seeding, alongside creating regulatory frameworks that address ethical and legal concerns. As climate change continues to challenge traditional water management strategies, the role of cloud seeding in global weather modification efforts remains a subject of vital importance and ongoing debate.
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Fact check: Was cloud seeding to blame for the 2024 Dubai flooding?

What happened

In early 2024 Dubai experienced unprecedented flooding due to an intense storm that delivered over a year's worth of rainfall in just a few hours. This extreme weather event caused significant disruptions, flooded streets, and affected daily life across the city. 

❗️Dubai recorded a record rainfall of 256mm within 24 hours. The annual average rainfall is 97mm!

The claims about cloud seeding

Following the floods, there was speculation on social media that cloud seeding was responsible for the extreme rainfall. The UAE has historically used cloud seeding to mitigate water scarcity. Reports indicated that cloud seeding operations were conducted in the days leading up to the flooding, adding fuel to these speculations.

Debunking the claims

Experts and meteorological data quickly dispelled the notion that cloud seeding caused the flooding. Meteorologists clarified that cloud seeding cannot generate rain from clear skies - it can only enhance precipitation from existing clouds. Furthermore, the weather pattern responsible for the downpour was a natural meteorological event. This weather system at play was so significant that cloud seeding operations would have had a negligible effect on the outcome.

Climate change as a contributor

Climate scientists think that climate change is a more likely explanation for the severity of the rainfall. Warmer air holds more moisture - approximately 7% more for every degree Celsius increase - and is likely to have contributed to the intensity of the rainfall.

💡 Research suggests that the UAE could see up to a 30% increase in annual rainfall by the century's end if global temperatures continue to rise, exacerbating such extreme weather events.

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Climate change and cloud seeding

As the debate around cloud seeding continues, its potential role in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies becomes a focal point of discussion.

Opportunities for cloud seeding in climate change mitigation

  • Enhancing water security - In the face of climate change-induced droughts, cloud seeding offers a method to potentially enhance water availability, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. By increasing precipitation, it could play a role in securing water for agriculture, drinking, and other essential uses.
  • Cooling urban heat - In urban areas, where the “heat island effect” exacerbates temperature extremes, cloud seeding could be employed to trigger cooling rainfall, thereby reducing the demand for energy-intensive air conditioning and contributing to urban climate resilience.
  • Supporting ecosystem health - By potentially increasing precipitation in drought-affected ecosystems, cloud seeding could aid in the preservation of biodiversity, offering relief to stressed natural habitats and contributing to the overall health of ecosystems.

Challenges in leveraging cloud seeding for climate change

  • Predictability and control - The inherent unpredictability of weather systems makes it challenging to control and predict the outcomes of cloud seeding accurately, raising questions about its reliability as a climate change adaptation tool.
  • Scaling and scope - Scaling cloud seeding operations to a level where they can have a significant impact on climate change poses logistical and technological challenges. The localized nature of cloud seeding also limits its scope in addressing the global scale of climate change.
  • Monitoring and measurement - Effective integration of cloud seeding into climate change strategies requires robust systems for monitoring and measuring its impacts, both environmentally and meteorologically. Developing these systems is essential to ensure responsible and effective use of the technology.

The path forward: research, collaboration, and governance

  • Continued research and development - Advancing our understanding of the interactions between cloud seeding, weather patterns, and climate systems is crucial. Ongoing research in climate science will be vital in evaluating the potential and limitations of cloud seeding as part of climate change strategies.
  • International collaboration - Another critical aspect of the debate is the meteorological effects of cloud seeding. There are concerns that altering precipitation patterns in one area could inadvertently affect weather systems in another, leading to unforeseen changes in local climates. These unintended consequences could potentially disrupt natural weather cycles, impacting agriculture and ecosystems in regions beyond the targeted area. Recent demands in the French National Assembly for UNESCO protection of clouds highlight the need for international collaboration to prevent the weaponization of weather and ensure responsible practices.
  • Regulatory frameworks and governance - Establishing clear regulatory frameworks and governance mechanisms are essential to address the ethical, legal, and environmental concerns associated with cloud seeding and cloud seeding experiments. These frameworks should balance the drive for innovation with the need to protect ecosystems and communities.
👉 Cloud seeding presents both opportunities and complexities. Its potential as a tool for water management and possibly even climate cooling must be weighed against the risks of ecological disruption and unintended climatic consequences. The path forward calls for a careful, science-driven approach, ensuring that cloud seeding is used cautiously and effectively as part of a larger toolbox of strategies to combat climate change.

Technological advances in cloud seeding

Recent technological advancements have significantly enhanced the precision and effectiveness of cloud seeding operations.

The use of drones, for example, has emerged as a groundbreaking method, offering greater accuracy and flexibility compared to traditional aircraft. Drones can operate in diverse weather conditions, reach remote areas, and precisely disperse seeding materials where they are most needed. This method reduces costs and minimizes risks associated with manned flights.

💡 The use of drones for cloud seeding is gaining traction. For example, in 2021, the UAE's National Center of Meteorology launched a series of drone-based cloud seeding tests to enhance rainfall.

Additionally, innovations in seeding materials, such as more effective hygroscopic particles and environmentally friendly alternatives, have improved the efficiency of inducing precipitation. These advancements ensure that the seeding process yields better results with fewer environmental concerns.

Real-time monitoring and data analysis have also revolutionized cloud seeding operations. Advanced meteorological instruments and satellite technology enable continuous tracking of atmospheric conditions, allowing for timely and informed decision-making. Data collected from these sources are analyzed using sophisticated algorithms to optimize seeding efforts, ensuring that materials are dispersed at the optimal time and location. This integration of real-time data and analytics not only enhances the immediate effectiveness of cloud seeding but also contributes to a deeper understanding of its long-term impacts, facilitating more sustainable and scientifically informed practices.

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