It might sound like a parable of human hubris, or perhaps a cinematic supervillain scheme, but it's real: The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is backing a plan to control the weather via an artificial mountain.
For obvious reasons, the prosperous, rapidly growing desert nation is facing a serious water shortage. A 2013 study found the UAE was burning through 275 billion liters of water each year. The government has already taken a number of smaller, more predictable steps to curtail resource use: raising taxes on water and electricity, introducing water-saving technology on farms, and installing water-conserving fixtures in businesses and residential buildings. But the shortage continues, and so UAE engineers have begun to look to the sky—especially the clouds.
Cloud-seeding, like hydroponic farming, is a vintage concept that has seen a resurgence in recent years. Engineers “seed” clouds by implanting microscopic particles that, in theory, help the cloud condense water and encourage rain. Does it work? That depends who you ask. Scientists in the UAE, which spent $558,000 on cloud-seeding in 2015 alone, claim the process was instrumental in recent increases in rainfall. Elsewhere, researchers aren’t so sure.
The new mountain scheme is an extension of cloud-seeding theory. It’s based on a legit phenomenon called orographic precipitation [PDF], in which the rise and fall of damp air over a mountain creates rain or snow on one side. So, UAE scientists figured, if they could just make a mountain, they’d have rain.
The first step is figuring out the best shape for a rain-making mountain. Roelof Bruintjes of the U.S.'s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is lead scientist on the project. “What we are looking at is basically evaluating the effects on weather through the type of mountain, how high it should be and how the slopes should be,” Bruintjes told Arabian Business. “We will have a report of the first phase this summer as an initial step.”
The government has given Bruintjes and his colleagues $400,000 to get started.
But outside of the UAE, skepticism about the project abounds. Speaking to Vocativ, Oxford University physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert said he had real doubts that it will work: “UAE is a desert because of the wind patterns arising from global atmospheric circulations, and any mountain they build is not going to alter those," he said. Still, Pierrehumbert added that the NCAR is a good organization, and that at the very least, some interesting science should come out of the venture.
The UAE is no stranger to bizarre, technically ambitious, at times baffling projects. As a playground for the ultra-wealthy, the city of Dubai alone boasts the world’s tallest skyscraper, a palm-tree-shaped artificial archipelago, a helipad/tennis court 1000 feet in the air, and paramedics who wear jetpacks. Current building projects include an even taller skyscraper, an indoor snow park, and a skywalk almost as high up as that death-inviting tennis court.
Compared to these, building a mountain to make rain seems practically, well, practical.