Photograph by James Davis Photography, Alamy
Published January 18, 2011
This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.
In arid lands, the ability to create freshwater out of thin air would be priceless.
Now a Swiss company, Meteo Systems, is poised to earn a pretty penny in Abu Dhabi with a controversial weather modification system said to be responsible for dozens of rain showers in the desert last summer.
The claim is difficult to verify but certainly has raised a storm of skepticism among many leading weather modification experts.
“As far as I’m concerned I don’t believe these claims,” said Roelof Bruintjes, who heads the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s international weather modification programs. “There’s no scientific basis for this; the physics doesn’t support it.”
(Related: “Planes Create Weird Clouds—And Snow, Rain Fall Out.”)
While typical weather modification efforts—which began in the mid-20th century and continue in nations from the United States to China—make use of natural clouds and attempt to “seed” them to produce precipitation, Meteo Systems purports to create the clouds themselves.
Their system uses arrays of 33-foot (10-meter) electric towers that produce negatively charged ions, according to the company. These ions bind with tiny solid and liquid particles, supercharging the particles’ ability to form clouds and precipitation.
Joseph Golden, a weather modification expert who once chaired the now-defunct Atmospheric Modification Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also has serious doubts that the technique could work.
“This method is inherently incapable of producing clouds out of thin air,” Golden said.
(Related: “China’s Rain-Free Olympics Plan Met With Skepticism.”)
A Long History of Ionization
The Technical University of Munich’s Peter Wilderer, winner of the 2003 Stockholm Water Prize, said people have been attempting ionization techniques for decades.
"The ionization technology was first mentioned in 1890 by [Nikola] Tesla. In 1946 General Electric executed some field trials under the leadership of [Bernard] Vonnegut [brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut]. Later the technology was used for military purposes in the former Soviet Union."
Wilder added that reviews of radar images suggested to him that ionization could possibly have some effect, under proper meteorological conditions. Despite press reports to the contrary, he has never personally witnessed any rainfall events produced by Meteo Systems.
Show Me the Data
NOAA’s Golden is interested in hearing much more from the scientists trying to make it rain in the desert.
“I put out a challenge to any of those that are involved in this project and making these claims. Show me the data,” he said.
There may be little chance of such transparency in the near-term, however, as Meteo Systems is closely guarding the secrets of the potentially valuable technology the company has dubbed “WEATHERTEC.”
Meteo Systems did not respond to calls and emails from National Geographic News.
The directors of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, who have been erroneously linked to the project via media reports, released a statement expressing “distress” that the scientific organization had been associated in any way with the work of Meteo Systems. They added that rainstorms were part of unusual weather patterns in the Middle East last summer.
“Our institute has no connection whatsoever to this work, nor have we been privy to the underlying evidence that the company is using to support its claims,” the statement said.
“We also note that many people have a financial stake in seeing these claims being credibly reported by the media, and that to the extent rain showers in the region were unusual this summer, they accompanied rather unusual weather patterns over the broader region, which certainly had nothing to do with the very localized experiments in Abu Dhabi. One only needs to be reminded of the terrible flooding over neighboring Pakistan.”
NCAR’s Bruintjes noted that the UN-based World Meteorological Organization’s expert team on weather modification research met in Abu Dhabi in March 2010, and issued a report on the state of the science that cautioned against just this type of technology.
“The energy involved in weather systems is so large that it is impossible to create cloud systems that rain,” the WMO report read. “Weather modification technologies that claim to achieve such large-scale or dramatic effects do not have sound scientific basis (e.g. hail cannons, ionization methods) and should be treated with suspicion.”
Golden said people who are simply desperate to fool Mother Nature often pay for modification techniques that are unproven at best, including the hail cannons mentioned in the WMO report. “Farmers invest thousands of dollars in those cannons to suppress hail even though the scientific evidence is that they don’t work,” he said.
Bruintjes put his point bluntly: “The rotation of the Earth, the energy of the sun, and moisture from the oceans cause these things. None of us can change that, and it’s actually good that none of us can change that because we’d likely make a mess of it.”
The World's Water
The world's increasing population and development of agricultural land are putting pressure on the Earth's limited freshwater supplies. Find out what's at stake and how you can help.
Learn more about the world's water challenge with photos, stories, videos, and more.
You might be surprised to see how the daily choices you make affect critical watersheds around the world.
Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others
Arizona's Verde River gets a boost from an innovative partnership.
Farmers in the Verde River Basin employ new technology to benefit a desert environment.
Funny viral video series hopes to get people thinking about the importance of water.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Stories From Experts in the Field
National Geographic Fellow Zeb Hogan tells us what needs to happen in order to save the region's giant fish.
Sunita Narain tells us how one remote village is setting an example for the rest of the country—and world.
National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel describes one of the biggest success stories in urban water management.