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Dubai’s flood warns that cities must adapt to climate change

People push a bus through flood water, in Dubai, April 17. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

Heavy rains pounded the United Arab Emirates (UAE), particularly Dubai, on April 16, exceeding average annual rainfall totals within a single day.

The flood wreaked havoc on Dubai—streets transformed into raging rivers, killing at least 21 people. The Dubai International Airport was not spared either, experiencing disrupted flights and stranded travelers. 

“This event is especially shocking and bizarre to me,” Noella Shin (9), a recent Dubai traveler, said. “During my recent visit, Dubai was really dry and had the smallest amount of rain, which seems so different from what is happening right now.”

Following the event, news outlets and social media began to search for the cause of this abnormal phenomenon. Initially, much online discussion pointed out cloud seeding, a weather modification technique employed in the UAE to increase rainfall. However, experts were quick to caution against assigning sole blame to this practice. 

“If that occurred with cloud seeding, they’d have water all the time,” Ryan Maue, a private meteorologist and former chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “You can’t create rain out of thin air per se and get 6 inches of water. That’s akin to perpetual motion technology.”

The answer rather lies in a more complex phenomenon—climate change. Rising global temperatures have led to more extreme weather events worldwide, including intense rainfall. 

“Climate change resulted in warmer water in the seas surrounding Dubai,” Mark Howden, Director at the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions, said. “This increases both potential evaporation rates and the capacity of the atmosphere to hold that water, allowing bigger dumps of rainfall such as what we have just seen in Dubai.”

This aligns with observations in Dubai, where average annual rainfall gradually increased in recent decades. A recent study warns that this flood could be a sign of more frequent and severe weather events to come in the future, revealing a major concern—there are not enough places for all the water from such weather events to go.

In the face of this urgent challenge, experts also point to two solutions: building resilience in urban infrastructure and mitigating climate change itself.

Dubai’s lack of drainage and flawed urban engineering was one of the biggest contributors to the massive flooding. Hence, it is crucial to increase drainage capacity in urban cities to handle heavier rainfalls. This could involve installing wider channels, incorporating green infrastructure like rain gardens, and improving the water permeability of roads.

Beyond drainage improvements, the world should aim to tackle the root cause of climate change. 

“Addressing climate change requires reducing greenhouse emissions, shifting to renewable energy sources, and promoting global cooperation,” Robin Ibbotson, a biology teacher at SIS, said. “However, it won’t be a simple task. One of the biggest challenges would be ‘buy-in’: getting everybody to address the problem. For instance, developing nations often face resource limitations, hindering their adoption of renewable energy and sustainable practices. Hence, global efforts are essential. Developed nations like the US and China should be leaders in this matter, as the largest contributors of climate change.”

Addressing such problems is a complex and long-term undertaking; however, it is the only way to ensure a future where cities are not constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed by water. 

“This bizarre weather event is a clear sign that something isn’t right with our planet,” Hailey Cho (9), a frequent news observer, said. “We need to be aware of what is happening in Dubai, as this is rather a global problem.”

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