Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

The weather has made me as gloomy as the skies

Rainy weather in the UAE has Deborah Williams thinking about life at home
Cloudy Weather in Abu Dhabi, Vidhyaa for The National
Cloudy Weather in Abu Dhabi, Vidhyaa for The National

Let’s talk about the weather. Usually in Abu Dhabi there’s not much to say about the weather other than hot, hotter, or hottest, with occasional variations for dust and sand. Before I moved here, “sandy” was a word I used only about the beach; I didn’t know it could be a weather condition.

For the last few weeks, however, the UAE has been downright chilly and wet; there have been flash floods in the mountains and rough conditions on the water. For the first few days of this cold snap, I revelled in the novelty of it all and assumed that, as in years past, the bad weather would be short-lived. Soon enough, I thought, we’d return to the February standard of clear air, abundant sunshine, blue sky. I like the weather forecast on my iPhone to be nothing but yellow circles, a little row of egg yolks.

When the grey days stretched into a week and then into another, however, my thoughts turned as gloomy as the skies. Was Abu Dhabi’s weather an inversion of the non-winter happening in New York, where instead of February’s usual ankle-deep puddles of slush, the city was awash in sunshine and balmy skies? Friends sent me photos of themselves sunbathing on park benches, while I sent them pictures of women in abayas leaping over puddles.

“They must be cloud seeding,” a friend told me, nodding knowledgeably at Abu Dhabi’s leaden skies. I laughed because I’d thought that cloud seeding was an urban legend that no one really understands.

The truth, it seems, is something different. A team of scientists who recently won funding from the UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement Science is working to refine cloud seeding technology. Their efforts include everything from developing better ways to measure cloud density to exploring possible nanotechnology solutions, but at the moment, cloud seeding basically involves firing crystals into clouds in order to spur the condensation process.

Cloud seeding might seem extreme, but it may be one of the few possible solutions to the twinned problems of the UAE's desert climate and reliance on desalination. Desalination is expensive and environmentally unsustainable, particularly given that the UAE’s daily consumption of water is one of the highest in the world (about 350 litres per capita). In the UAE and elsewhere, efforts at conservation have been mildly successful, but so many countries are addicted to blooming gardens and green parks, that conservation alone isn’t going to ward off a crisis in the world’s water supply.

I understand that water is becoming an increasingly precious resource and yet, at the same time, the idea that we might deliberately tamper with weather patterns makes me anxious. Our history as a species suggests that we seem to delight in trying to control everything – and now we’re trying to control the weather. Let’s not even think about the long tradition of scientists assuring people that new technologies are nothing to worry about, only to announce at some later point that maybe there are just a few little problems, or maybe even more than a few.

Then again, cloud seeding is still quite an imprecise science, so perhaps this spate of grey days has more to do with disruptions in weather patterns caused by climate change. “It’s not usually like this,”people say, in response to everything from the recent balmy weather in New York to the blizzards in the UK, or last winter’s record rainfall in Hong Kong. Climatologists say that “the usual” is changing, sometimes radically, and that a central cause is global warming.

So say what you will about “just a little rain” and the fun you had stomping in rain puddles, I’m convinced that our recent weeks of rain are the consequence of human behaviour. In the short-term, we’ve been hurling salt pellets into the clouds; in the long-term, we’re hurling carbon into the atmosphere. As I write these words, the sky has come back to its usual blue, but there are, literally, clouds on the horizon. I wonder how they got there?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Updated: March 1, 2017 04:00 AM