x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE fog gets a little blue-sky thinking

Experts are working on a system that will predict fog incidents, giving advance warning to travellers on the road and in the air.

There are few experiences in the UAE more frightening than driving along the Dubai to Abu Dhabi motorway in thick fog. Ravindranath K / The National
There are few experiences in the UAE more frightening than driving along the Dubai to Abu Dhabi motorway in thick fog. Ravindranath K / The National

There are few experiences in the UAE more frightening than driving along the Dubai to Abu Dhabi motorway in thick fog.

As well as being terrifying, such conditions also inflict a heavy toll in death and injury, not least in March 2008 when a 60-vehicle pile-up on the road left eight dead and scores more hurt, and in April last year, when one person died in a 127-vehicle crash.

Research at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi could help reduce the frequency of fog-related crashes in the Emirates, poor driving standards notwithstanding.

Dr Hosni Ghedira, director of Masdar's Earth Observation and Hydro-Climatology Laboratory, is heading the project, which is looking to improve the forecasting of heavy fog incidents, allowing the authorities to take preventative measures to cut the likelihood of accidents.

As well as alerting the authorities, the work could lead to ways in which motorists themselves are better informed, with Dr Ghedira's project also involving the development of mobile-phone applications that give drivers advance warning of heavy fog.

The research team is using satellite images to create models that will predict when heavy fog incidents will take place and how long they will last once they do.

"The UAE climate has not been studied in depth. Most climate and meteorological models used in this region were developed in Europe and the United States and are not adapted to the specific dusty and dry conditions of the UAE," Dr Ghedira said.

"Our researchers are working on the adaptation and recalibration of these models to the UAE climate and environment, and the development of the fog detection and forecasting tool is part of this effort."

Typically, the UAE sees around 20 heavy fog incidents each year, most of them in the winter. The country is tailor-made for fog formation, with a desert on one side and a warm sea on the other, and with heavy afternoon sea breezes and rapid evening cooling.

Having more accurate information on where fog will form, and how thick it will be, will allow the transport authorities to take more precise safety measures on busy roads, according to Dr Ghedira.

"Such measures might include a targeted deployment of traffic patrols, closure of roads and other warning measures," he said.

The GPS-enabled mobile apps offering warnings for drivers heading towards fog-affected areas could be available in the UAE within two years.

Better prediction of heavy fog could also be useful to the maritime and aviation industries, something any UAE airline passenger who has experienced being left grounded as a result of heavy fog is likely to appreciate.

"As aviation, shipping and ground transportation is expanding at an unprecedented rate in the UAE, predicting and monitoring fog becomes more important to ensure safe personal travel and smooth cargo transportation," Dr Ghedira said.

Being able to predict accurately the time and location of heavy fog is potentially also of value in assessing the impact of climate change.

There is yet another application of the technology, and one that is perhaps more surprising.

This use ties in with a second project at Masdar, which, like Dr Ghedira's initiative, is funded by the National Research Foundation.

A scheme headed by Dr Raed Hashaikah, an associate professor in materials science and engineering, is looking at how to turn fog into water, something that could offer the UAE a new source of fresh water.

In a country where rainfall averages just 110 millimetres a year, a heavy dependence on desalination has developed, and finding alternatives could help reduce reliance on a process that often concerns environmentalists.

Indeed, after Saudi Arabia, the UAE produces more desalinated water, at 1.7 billion cubic metres, than any other country.

The project involves using large nets to collect fog droplets, with the programme focusing on developing the best surface material to harvest fresh water.

"Our research will focus on developing advanced surfaces to enhance the capture and collection of tiny fog droplets," Dr Hashaikeh told the state news agency, Wam.

"Through materials that can increase water capture efficiency, we aim to exploit fog occurrences as a renewable source of fresh water in the UAE."

In looking at ways to condense fog into water, the researchers are developing methods that already bring great benefits to communities across the globe.

Near Lima, the capital of Peru, for example, nets have been set up at right angles to the prevailing winds, with water condensing and falling into gutters.

This means that during the foggy season villagers are able to collect hundreds of gallons of water a day.

There have been similar projects in eastern Nepal, continuing a long tradition of condensing fog into water.

In fact, some reports have suggested that as far back as 2,000 years ago, desert people would collect water that had condensed on the leaves of trees.

Dr Hashaikeh's work involves altering the hydrophobicity of surface materials - the degree to which they are water-repellent - and then testing them in the laboratory.

The two Masdar projects tie together because the fog prediction and analysis work Dr Ghedira's team is undertaking should prove useful when the water capture nets are set up in the field.

"Having the location of the main affected areas will help the fog capture team to select the appropriate deployment location," Dr Ghedira said.

If the UAE is able to wean itself off its dependence on desalination, it would offer one solution to what is a long-standing drawback of taking seawater and purifying it, namely the fact that highly concentrated brine is left over.

This is typically flushed back into the sea, potentially harming marine ecosystems because it leads to an increase in the salt concentration.

The UAE's output of desalinated water has tripled in little more than a decade.

But as demand for water continues to grow, there have been predictions that the Gulf region will suffer an ever more acute deficit in the water supply in the coming decades.

So there seems no better time than the present to be trying to turn those thick fogs, the bane of UAE motorists and airlines at this time of year, into something much more useful.

newsdesk@thenational.ae