x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

One man's quest for the perfect storm

Omar al Naimi spends his spare time studying weather forecasts and chasing storms across the UAE.

Storm chaser Omar al Naimi, centre, has a website with 15,000 members and has a regular programme on Al Dafrah TV.
Storm chaser Omar al Naimi, centre, has a website with 15,000 members and has a regular programme on Al Dafrah TV.

Most people run from the kind of heavy rains and storms that lashed the country at the weekend. Omar al Naimi runs after them. Mr al Naimi, 30, from Al Ain, is a storm chaser. He spends his spare time studying weather forecasts.

And with the help of a rapidly expanding group of storm-chasing enthusiasts in the UAE and the GCC, he finds the best locations to photograph storms at their worst. His website, storm.ae, has 15,000 registered users. Every week, Mr al Naimi and his fellow storm chasers appear on Al Dafrah TV on a reality show called Rijal al Awasef Men of the Storm. "People have a misconception about the UAE when they say there are no storms here," he said. "There is always some sort of rain, cloud or dust storm to follow. Even during summer in the middle of the day it rains, but usually it stays high and is found in the eastern mountain areas."

But storms like this weekend's are unusual. "I've been following storms in the UAE since I was a child," he said. "I think now the climate is changing fast. In the UAE storms used to be friendly, not harmful, but now every time there is a storm there is a disaster." On Saturday, Mr al Naimi, a government employee, was in Fujairah photographing the torrential rain before dawn. He then travelled south through Sharjah and Dubai, following the rough weather.

It was the worst, he said, since the hail storms in March last year. In 2008, his hobby almost turned deadly in the mountains near Al Ain, during an event he called the "doomsday" storm. "The rain was so torrential and we felt threatened by the floods," he recounted on his website. "We were trying to get through the valley but we could not because of all the water." He escaped danger by taking an alternate route around the mountain.

He strongly suspected that this weekend's storms would be dangerous as well, and posted warnings on his website. For Mr al Naimi, storm chasing is a passion decades in the making. "When I was growing up, my parents used to take me out whenever there was rain. I grew up loving it. All our family loved it, so I developed the hobby. I started trying to predict when there would be rain, chasing the storms whenever I found out about them and eventually set up the website. When it became popular it encouraged me further and now it is a full-time obsession. I love it."

Dr Waleed Hamza, the chairman of the biology department at the UAE University in Al Ain, has been studying climate change for a decade. He said although storms seemed to be getting worse, the extreme weather was coming from a shift in wind direction. "If you look at the data for the last five years, 2008 was the worst year in terms of frequency of storms. In 2009 and 2010 so far we have had fewer storms but they are becoming more concentrated in the winter months. The precipitation is coming because of the type of wind.

"Usually in the winter we get cooler shamal winds from the north-west but the winds this weekend were monsoon winds from the south. They are warmer and when they hit the low depression, which is normal for winter, it causes the rain." Rain or shine, the weather patterns keep Mr al Naimi and other enthusiasts busy. Every day thousands of members log on to the website and post comments and pictures. Competitions are held for the best photographs, and users share tips on where to take the best shots.

The show, which runs every Saturday on Al Dafrah TV at 5.30pm, is one of the channel's most popular, said Fatima Mohammed, the general manager. "We have so many calls about it and many comments on our website," she said. "In the UAE, people miss the rain. They look forward to it like Europeans look forward to the sun. The show is also popular because they give advice to people about how to cope with the rain and how to be safe but enjoy the storms at the same time."

Rijal al Awasef is due to run for two more months. Then, Ms Mohammed said, she hoped for a summer series on dust storms with Mr al Naimi, of course. "Whether the TV follows us or not, we will be chasing storms all year-round," he said. "It is what we love and we are happiest at the centre of the storm." * The National