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Playing God with the atmosphere

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image of submerged car in rainwater amidst flooding in the region

The Atlantic, April 2024

After a deluge of record-breaking rainfall this week, citizens of the United Arab Emirates and Oman are still trying to return to regular life. The storms forced schools, offices, and businesses to close, transformed the tarmac of Dubai’s international airport into a rippling sea, and killed more than 20 people across both nations. The downpour seemed almost apocalyptic: On Tuesday, the UAE received the amount of rain that usually falls in an entire year.

Early reports of the weather event prompted some speculation that it was worsened by a controversial weather-modification technology. The practice, known as cloud seeding, involves spraying chemical compounds into the air in an effort to wring more rain out of the sky. The United Arab Emirates carries out hundreds of these operations every year in an effort to supplement its water resources in the arid landscape. Exactly how well cloud seeding actually works is an active debate among scientists, but the technique can’t produce rain clouds out of thin air—it can only enhance what’s already there.

The consensus, for now, seems to be that cloud seeding is unlikely to have contributed significantly to this week’s historic inundation. (The UAE’s meteorology agency said no seeding missions were conducted before the storm.) But the event raises anew some fundamental questions about interfering with nature. Cloud seeding is a type of geoengineering, a set of technologies aimed deliberately at influencing or altering Earth’s climate systems. The warmer our planet becomes, the more attractive geoengineering seems as a way to slow or endure the effects of climate change—and the less accurately we can predict its effects. Scientists can’t be sure that playing God with the atmosphere won’t cause human suffering, even if it is intended to alleviate it.

Read more at The Atlantic.

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