A dusty end to the Turkish drought

November 16, 2001

Saharan sand may help to create artificial snowstorms that refill the reservoirs, Dorian Jones says.

What does Saharan desert dust have in common with snow? Quite a lot, says Cemal Saydam, deputy head of the Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Institute. He is planning to use the dust as a solution to three years of drought in Turkey's central and eastern regions.

Saydam says the desert dust could be dispersed over clouds to create artificial snowstorms. "We will be able to make it snow or rain anywhere we want. All we need are clouds."

In 1997, Saydam and his team started to measure the amount of snowfall and the resulting water reserves in eastern Turkey. Their findings, when compared with satellite studies of Saharan dust movements, revealed a correlation between dust clouds and increases in snowfall.

Saydam says last year's floods in Italy and Switzerland provided further evidence. "During the heavy rainfalls in Italy, we studied satellite images that showed there were large quantities of Saharan dust present, which had combined with the clouds and led to the heavy rainfalls. This was just another example confirming our studies."

Gurcan Oraltay, of Mamara University in Istanbul, is perfecting a process of stimulating the formation of snow under laboratory conditions. He claims that his was the first such experiment in the world. The process involves mixing the dust with water and then exposing it to intense light. The use of light is key, according to Oraltay, because it "recreates the role of the sun in the formation of snow or rain".

Oraltay says the findings, which will be used in field tests later this year, indicate that the Saharan dust has a kind of turbo-charged effect on the precipitation process of the clouds, compared with ordinary dust.

"If we use Saharan dust, we can more easily grow ice crystals. It's at least about 50 per cent more effective, which means 50 per cent more precipitation."

Much of Turkey suffered in the severe drought, in particular the east of the country. It has hurt agriculture and reduced the output of hydroelectric plants. Most are located in the east and all the reservoirs are at critically low levels. With the country depending on hydroelectricity for a fifth of its power, nationwide power cuts are predicted. The main factor behind the water shortages is the lack of snow for the past two winters.

The first trials of the snow-precipitation method are due to take place close to the capital Ankara. Saydam says: "I am in talks with the Ankara municipality. This year the rains failed again, and the reservoir serving the capital is at a critical stage. We can't afford another dry winter."

He adds that timing is crucial. "We have to wait until it gets cold because we don't want to cause rain, which would lead to flooding."

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