Just like regular pilots, they take to the sky, but they take the job to the next level by flying around and into the clouds on each mission.
Captain Mark Newman has dedicated 10 years of service to the National Center of Meteorology (NCM), flying cloud-seeding aircraft here.
However, his experience flying cloud-seeding aircraft goes back even further.
Trained pilots like him work in coordination with meteorologists and cloud seeding specialists to carry out rainfall enhancement missions in the UAE.
Photos: Rahul Gajjar/KT
NCM analyzes weather maps daily while pilots remain on standby
Speaking exclusively to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the mission, he explains that each day during the morning shift, NCM cloud seeding specialists begin by analyzing weather maps to identify ideal conditions for cloud seeding operations.
“They focus on areas where clouds are likely to form at the location and time, which is crucial to the success of cloud seeding. A typical mission can last up to three hours and we cover all the borders of the UAE,” explains the South African citizen.
Based on this analysis, a cloud seeding plan is developed for the current day and the next three days.
“That gives us…the pilots a guide to being on standby,” Newman says.
The preparation process begins by equipping the designated aircraft with cloud seeding materials. Airplanes have racks to carry flares and cloud-seeding canisters.
“It is put on hold before the cloud seeding specialists present in the operations room issue the order to take off.”
Stand out throughout this process; The operator constantly observes satellite images and weather radar visuals to ensure accurate execution.
As clouds begin to form, their locations are identified and a takeoff order is issued after careful evaluation of radar images to determine the optimal position within the cloud.
“Once the location has been confirmed, a seeding command is issued and the operations center maintains constant communication with us (the pilots), guiding the aircraft to additional sites in the cloud for future operations,” he adds.
Newman says: “We fly to a target cloud set by operations. We’ll get there and fly around the base of the cumulus clouds. As soon as we detect an updraft from that cloud, we’ll go into orbit. Basically, this is flying in a circular pattern below that cloud. That’s where we release salt particles from the flare to improve the conductivity of the cloud. “Once we have done that, we will move away from the cloud.”
Currently, the UAE conducts nearly 300 cloud seeding missions a year. As of January 2023, 247 cloud seeding missions have already been carried out.
“Our altitudes vary, but generally we do base planting. That is, our cloud seeding is oriented towards the base. We fly between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, below cloud base levels.”
The captain describes how sodium chloride, commonly known as common salt, is released into cloud updrafts.
“The salt particles are absorbed by the cloud and serve as nuclei. These nuclei attract moisture, causing the droplets to grow by coalescence. Over time, the droplet becomes too large for gravity to hold, causing rain. Basically, this process releases moisture from the cloud,” says the veteran pilot.
When asked how long it takes before it rains, he adds: “It takes between 15 minutes and an hour for the materials to take effect, which increases precipitation and causes rain.”
Winter operations exceed summer operations
Similarly, William Murgatroyd, who has been part of these missions for four years, highlights that the missions during the winter months outnumber the missions during the summer period.
And he adds: “We have 12 pilots assigned for the mission with four aircraft to cover cloud seeding operations in the country.
“Sometimes, in one day, we carry out three missions. In the summer months, these cloud seeding missions take place from afternoon to sunset. But during the winter months we conduct operations from dawn to dusk or from dusk to dawn the next day,” says the South African expat.
Ecological salts used for cloud seeding
The pilots explain that environmentally friendly hygroscopic materials are commonly used for cloud seeding in the United Arab Emirates.
These materials contain natural salts, including potassium chloride and sodium chloride, and typically reach clouds via flares.
“In addition, there has recently been a shift toward using new nanomaterials for cloud seeding, such as hygroscopic and hydrophilic materials.”
Studies and experiments have suggested that these nanomaterials exhibit greater effectiveness in enhancing precipitation compared to conventional materials.
“During the summers of 2004 and 2005, a statistical randomization experiment was conducted that revealed that cloud seeding could increase cloud water extraction by 10 to 15 percent under turbid atmospheric conditions. In cleaner atmospheres, this improvement ratio could potentially reach up to 25 percent,” he adds.
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