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Decoding Dubai Flash Floods: Experts Say Climate Change Has Clear Ties

TechnologyDecoding Dubai Flash Floods: Experts Say Climate Change Has Clear Ties

The CEO of Emirates airline issued an apology letter to customers over the weekend after historic rains in the United Arab Emirates caused record flooding and mayhem at Dubai’s airport.

Hundreds of flights were grounded and thousands of customers were stranded as a result.

“I would like to offer our most sincere apologies to every customer who has had their travel plans disrupted during this time,” company chief Tim Clark wrote in the letter published on the airline’s website Saturday.

“We know our response has been far from perfect. We acknowledge and understand the frustration of our customers due to the congestion, lack of information, and confusion in the terminals. We acknowledge that the long queues and wait times have been unacceptable.”

While the airline’s service hub at Dubai Airport remained open, “flooded roads impeded the ability of our customers, pilots, cabin crew, and airport employees to reach the airport, and also the movement of essential supplies like meals and other flight amenities,” Clark wrote.

He said the airline diverted dozens of flights on Tuesday as the worst of the storm raged, and that “over the next 3 days we had to cancel nearly 400 flights and delay many more, as our hub operations remained challenged by staffing and supply shortages.”

Emirates on Wednesday issued a notice urging travelers not to come to the airport, except for in emergency situations. It also suspended check-ins for those meant to fly out of Dubai, put an embargo on ticket sales and halted connecting flights from other cities to Dubai, leaving some passengers stuck around the world.

Social media lit up with angry posts from customers who said they received no help from Emirates staff and were unable to contact anyone at the company.

“12hrs waiting on a cancelled flight and 6hrs waiting at this desk with people fainting, fighting and trying to keep sane and absolutely no communication from Emirates,” one Instagram user posted, along with a photo showing a packed crowd of people in front of Emirates screens at the Dubai airport. The time stamp on the photo was 7:05 a.m. Friday.

Another traveler told CNBC via social media: “It took me 48 hours to get from London to Baghdad via Dubai. Five hours on tarmac in airplane [in Dubai], one hour of which there was no one to open the gates of the aircraft bridge. I made my own way out … found a hotel and went back, waited 12 hours. Got on a flight and they served us almonds!”

Some people said they were stuck at the airport for over 20 hours, and others, stranded in foreign cities and connecting airports, said they had to book their own return home after receiving no help from Emirates.

Decoding Dubai Flash Floods: Experts Say Climate Change Has Clear Ties
Representatives for the UAE government didn’t immediately reply to a written request for comment.

The heavy rains that flooded Dubai this week halted air traffic, damaged buildings and streets – and left climate experts and common citizens asking whether one of the world’s hottest and driest cities should be better prepared for extreme storms.
Weather forecasters knew days in advance that a major storm was heading for the United Arab Emirates and authorities issued warnings asking citizens to stay home. Yet its largest city Dubai was still brought to a halt this week, with one of the worst rain events in decades flooding streets, homes and highways.

“Stormwater management systems were historically deemed an ‘unnecessary cost’ due to the limited rainfall” in the UAE, said Karim Elgendy, an associate fellow at the Environment and Society Centre at Chatham House. “As the variability of rainfall increases across the region and as the likelihood of such events rises, the economic case for such systems becomes stronger.”

Human-caused climate change is making extreme weather events like heat and rain more intense, frequent and harder to predict. The Middle East is forecast to face higher temperatures and a decline in overall rainfall, according to long-term scientific projections. But these very arid places will also experience storms that drop unprecedented rain, according to researchers. That’s forcing governments to consider whether to adapt to rare but destructive events – and how.

Representatives for the UAE government didn’t immediately reply to a written request for comment.

“It’s a real tradeoff in thinking about the cost and the opportunity costs,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor specializing in urban climate adaptation at Cornell University in the US. “These events are likely to be erratic and unpredictable.”

The UAE was battered on Tuesday by its heaviest downpour since records began in 1949. Scientists and weather forecasters attribute the storm to a large amount of moisture rising from warming seas to the atmosphere, before falling as rain over to the Arabian Peninsula.

El Nino, the climate phenomenon that makes seas warmer and alters weather patterns globally, may have affected the storm. Climate change can’t be ruled out as a factor, though more detailed studies are needed to establish its exact influence, several climatologists and forecasters told Bloomberg Green.

“While massive floods like this have occurred in the past, the huge scale and intensity of the rainfall that caused it are exactly what we are seeing more of in our warmer world,” said Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at the University of Reading in the UK. “With so much rain falling all at once, even carefully designed drainage systems will struggle to cope.”

The floods drew immediate attention to the UAE’s cloud-seeding program, which involves injecting particles into clouds that can influence rainfall. But it will take “significant data analysis” to ascertain the role, if any, it played in making the rains more extreme, according to Auroop Ganguly, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “Often major floods in a city relate to urban drainage and related infrastructures,” he said.

Dubai and the UAE more broadly were unprepared for such a large amount of water falling over such a short period. Drainage systems quickly proved insufficient to absorb the deluge. Underground garages completely flooded, with water flowing into streets, highways and homes.

Tankers were deployed to pump water from streets once the storm passed, but some communities, lakes and local football grounds remained waterlogged days later. The impacts continue to ripple outward. Shelves in some local supermarkets were still empty on Thursday evening. Schools were shut for four days and government employees were asked to work from home where possible. Dubai’s international airport said Friday afternoon it was allowing departures to operate but it was limiting the number of inbound flights for the next 48 hours.

“Cities in arid regions may be especially ill-prepared for heavy rain events because buildings, landscapes and infrastructure have not been designed with drainage capacity as a primary concern,” said Zachary Lamb, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley in the US. “Climate change is unsettling long-held assumptions about landscape and climate conditions that have informed the design and planning of buildings and cities for generations.”

Dubai is not alone in facing that problem. Last year, a superstorm burst dams in Libya, causing floods that wreaked havoc in the city of Derna and killed at least 5,000 people. Parts of Beijing were also submerged last year after the Chinese capital was battered by the heaviest rainfall in 140 years of weather records. The flooding washed away homes and caused dozens of fatalities.

“Dubai can only prepare for what it sees as being within the range of probability for the future,” said Lisa Dale, a climate adaptation specialist at Columbia University in the US. “Predictions for future weather patterns foundationally rely on past weather patterns, leaving many governments unprepared for climate change impacts that are not historically common.”

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