Intense flooding across the Arabian Peninsula caused by a storm in mid-April sparked speculation about the role cloud seeding might have played in the precipitation event. Immediately after news of the flooding broke, conspiracy theorists took to social media to fan suspicion and trumpet the hazards of human intervention into natural processes. Cloud seeding is not the only climate change-adaptive strategy to have been targeted in this way, and the effort being expended to combat such disinformation (though nascent) is growing.

The basic facts about the precipitation event that dropped almost three years’ worth of rain on parts of the Gulf are well-known by this point. It began over Turkey on April 13-14, 2024, with an eastward-moving low-pressure system. An anti-cyclone over the Arabian Sea focused the southern edge of the system on Western Asia. A cluster of thunderstorms, known as a mesoscale convective system (MCS), then developed over the Gulf. With moisture advection off the surface of a warm Gulf and cold air from the incoming storm aloft, the stage was set to wring a significant amount of moisture out of the air as it rose.

MCS are a common springtime occurrence in the region, most often occurring in March and April. In this case, a “cut-off low” (an independent low-pressure cell spawned from the original storm system) broke free over Turkey and drifted southeast toward Oman on April 14. Fueled by warm air rising over Saudi Arabia and charged with moisture from the unusually warm surface waters of the Gulf, the storm reached the United Arab Emirates on April 15, building in intensity over the following two days as it dropped record precipitation on the UAE, northern Oman, Bahrain, and parts of Saudi Arabia. Over 250 mm were reported in parts of the UAE and Oman within the first 24 hours, causing widespread flooding. The death toll, as of early May, stood at around 200 total across the UAE, Oman, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with most of the victims in the latter two countries. 

In determining the possible extent to which cloud seeding could have been responsible for what occurred, it’s worth considering a few important aspects of the science. First, the method employed by the UAE National Centre of Meteorology (UAE NCM) is hygroscopic cloud seeding, which involves the release of finely ground salt particles into the base of select clouds by means of aircraft. These particles then grow by water vapor deposition until they are large enough to serve as condensation “nuclei” for rain to form.

Earlier analysis of the UAE cloud seeding program “suggests a potential rainfall enhancement in line with previous studies of 10-30%, but with large interannual variability in the proposed response.” With an average annual precipitation of less than 120 mm across the UAE, and an annual average precipitation for the period 1974-2023 at Dubai International Airport of 85.7 mm, a maximum increase of 30% would have yielded 111 mm from cloud seeding. This storm delivered over twice that amount within 24 hours. Similarly, previous analysis reports an average surface rainfall increase of 23% annually attributable to cloud seeding, so a shift such as this is simply not statistically feasible. The increase in rainfall volume reasonably observed due to cloud seeding is therefore nowhere near the volume that was unleashed over the region during this precipitation event.

Second, cloud seeding has no bearing on the amount of atmospheric moisture available in a given storm — the most important factor affecting the potential volume of precipitation. Atmospheric moisture content is driven by the temperature of the air, so the amount of precipitation ultimately delivered by a storm system like this one could not have been changed so significantly by cloud seeding that it would cause an event of this scale.

Third, seeding operations are not carried out indiscriminately. A great deal of planning and preparation are involved in selecting which developing storms to seed. The strength of the updraft within a cloud, the height to which it grows, and the conditions at that height are just a few of the factors taken into account when selecting clouds for seeding. This is important because while there were flights dispatched for purposes of sampling prior to the storm, “no cloud seeding missions (authorized by the UAE NCM) were carried out targeting the storm.” Rainfall did not intensify until later, on April 16 and 17.

In addition to the above criteria, from an industry standpoint, seeding operations are only carried out when necessary. This storm area was sufficiently massive and significant precipitation was predicted so there would have been no need for any seeding activity. It is therefore not surprising that the UAE NCM did not have any seeding operation scheduled.

Finally, recent trend analysis suggests it is more likely that a combination of El Niño conditions and a climate warming by 1.2°C (the current level) contributed to this catastrophe. Some estimates point to a 10-40% increase in rainfall intensity due to the convergence of these factors. El Niño years correlate to heavy precipitation events in the Gulf and Southern Arabian Peninsula. An El Niño year (such as 2024) means weaker global atmospheric circulation in the tropics and a warmer sea surface. Couple that with anomalously warm ocean temperatures, and significantly more moisture than what would otherwise be found in a “typical” (i.e. pre-climate change) El Niño is available to the atmosphere.

Disinformation and conspiracy-mongering are low-hanging fruit: easy to generate and increasingly easy to spread. Acknowledging that we live in a dynamic world of natural processes with ranges that are often difficult to quantify and trends that are changing within our lifetime is, for some reason, more difficult. Accepting that we do not live separately from these processes and that we bear a degree of responsibility for the trends they exhibit would constitute a step in the right direction.


Orestes Morfín is a senior planning analyst with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Climate and Water Program.

Photo by Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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