Updated Apr 17, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Dubai's record-shattering "rain bomb" has clear climate change ties

A man holding his jacket walks through a flooded highway in Dubai.

A driver walks along a flooded highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates April 17. Photo: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The record "rain bomb" that struck Dubai and other nearby Gulf states on Tuesday dumped more than two years' worth of rain on the global financial and transportation hub.

Why it matters: By bringing the city to a standstill, the floods demonstrated how inadequate existing infrastructure is for withstanding extreme weather events that are becoming more common and severe due to climate change.

Zoom in: Extremely heavy rains inundated the city, shutting down its busy airport hub for a time on Tuesday.

  • At least two years' worth of rain, or about 6.26 inches, fell in just 24 hours, qualifying as what have come to be known colloquially as "rain bombs" for their ultra-heavy totals in such short periods of time.
  • This amount of rainfall in a single day would cause problems even in more temperate locations, let alone Dubai, a desert city with poor drainage.
  • Cars, including luxury vehicles the city is known for, turned into boats, and planes at Dubai International Airport were seen on social media using their engine power to blast through high waters.

The latest: On Wednesday, a weather emergency was in effect in Dubai, with schools closed and people advised to stay home despite sunny skies.

  • With reports of damage to buildings, cars that may have to be scrapped, and lingering travel disruptions, this extreme rainfall event could end up costing a city known for its high-end shopping and luxury living tens of millions of dollars in damage, if not more.
  • At least 19 people were reported dead from flooding in Oman from the same weather system. At least one death was reported in the UAE.

Between the lines: The proximate cause of the flooding was a slow-moving and potent area of low pressure, or cold pocket of air aloft, that sparked complexes of severe thunderstorms over the United Arab Emirates and nearby countries on Tuesday.

  • This storm system, along with the threat of heavy rainfall, was shown by weather models several days in advance.

Yes, but: Dubai's frequent use of cloud seeding to enhance rainfall has led many to wonder if this was a human-engineered flood.

  • Cloud seeding has not been known to produce such large-scale and long-lasting severe thunderstorms that affect multiple countries. But it can, in some cases, lead to somewhat heavier rainfall than what might otherwise occur.
  • However, reports indicate the UAE was not conducting seeding operations on April 16. Also, the model projections, which showed heavy rainfall without incorporating cloud seeding into their calculations, also strongly suggest seeding was not a major contributor.

The intrigue: Instead, climate science studies and observations around the world show that extreme rainfall events like this, including ones that break all-time records, are becoming more common and severe as the planet warms.

  • Moisture from the warm Persian Gulf fed into the thunderstorms in this case.
  • In fact, increased hydrological extremes, in both the form of drought and heavy rains, are one of the most robust ties to human-caused climate change, which is reshaping global weather patterns.

What they're saying: "It's important to understand the plausible causes of the record-shattering extreme rainfall this week across Dubai and portions of Arabian Peninsula," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, said in a statement.

  • "Did cloud seeding play a role? Likely no! But how about climate change? Likely yes!"

Context: Dubai was the host of the 2023 U.N. Climate Summit, where countries agreed to "transition away from" fossil fuel-based economies.

  • The storm came at a time when crucial climate finance meetings are taking place in Washington, and the COP28 president, Sultan Ahmed al- Jaber is pushing for more progress on deploying renewable sources of energy.
  • The UAE itself is one of the world's largest producers of oil and natural gas.

The bottom line: This may have been a freak event for Dubai, but globally such extremes are become more common as the sea and atmosphere warm.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to address the topic of cloud seeding's possible role in the flooding.

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