It was an idea so extreme that it could have been published as an April Fool’s Day joke, albeit a month late.
The story that the UAE was looking at the possibility of building an artificial mountain in the desert to encourage more rain first surfaced in Arabian Business on May 1.
It was quickly picked up by western media, agog at the prospect of another spectacular construction first from the home of offshore palms and the world’s tallest building.
It’s a measure of the credibility capital amassed by the UAE’s extreme construction record that even The Wall Street Journal reported the story.
But if it was a spoof, like all good ones this one was laced with elements of truth. After widespread international coverage of the country’s cloud-seeding programme, everyone knew the UAE was going to great lengths to conjure up water from the sky.
And as preposterous as the idea sounds, there is solid science behind the concept, meteorological experts say.
“Without having looked into it, I can see there is an element of logic to the idea,” says Alex Burkill, a meteorologist at the British Meteorological Office.
Mountains do create rain, Mr Burkill says, because of what meteorologists call the “orographic effect”.
“In simple terms, as moist air meets the mountain it is forced to lift,” he says. “As it does, there is a drop in pressure and temperature, which condenses the moisture and forms clouds. And if there is enough water content, you will get rain.”
But as Newton’s Third Law tells us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – and one that is something any mountain designer would have to take very seriously into consideration.
Orographic rainfall is all very well, Mr Burkill says, but “it is also worth highlighting the Fohn effect”. When the moisture has been condensed out of the air by a mountain, the air is much drier as it descends the far side, creating hot, arid conditions – something the UAE really doesn’t need more of. In Colorado, heat differentials of up to 30°C have been recorded.
“I imagine that is something else that would be an outcome of such a project,” Mr Burkill says.
Classic examples of this effect are found in South America, with sopping-wet rainforest to the east of the Andes and the bone-dry Atacama Desert to the west.
To a lesser extent, in the UK, areas to the west of the Pennines are much wetter than those to the east.
So in principle, plonking down a huge mountain somewhere in the path of the UAE’s humidity-rich airflow could conceivably produce rain.
But how on Earth to go about building such a thing, when the principle local building material is not rock, but sand?
The UAE has shown it is not shy about tackling gigantic building projects. But even without waiting for a feasibility study to emerge from Colorado it is probably safe to say that if anything scuppers this project it is going to be cost.
And we know this from some curious sources.
In 2011 a Dutch journalist proposed that Holland should build a mountain 2,000 metres tall.
The proposal for De Nederlandse Berg began as a joke, but the idea took off and Thijs Zonneveld found himself on every talk show and being wooed by some of the country’s engineering giants.
Someone calculated that a solid mountain made of reinforced concrete would weigh more than 5 trillion kilograms, so attentions turned to creating a hollow structure, which one organisation priced at a little over €1 billion (Dh4.12bn).
In the end, Zonneveld told Der Spiegel in 2011, even he began to take himself seriously. Proof of this can be found on the website diebergkomter.nl, where visitors are invited to invest €50 in a feasibility study.
And Holland wasn’t the first country to consider raising its profile. In 2008 Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, built by the Nazis and, as home of the postwar Berlin airlift, a symbol of German rebirth and reunification, was finally closed.
That left the city with a problem: what to do with the vast, culturally significant site in the heart of the city?
An architectural competition in 2009 produced the usual dull, mixed-use proposals, but it was a spoof scheme by Berlin architect and academic Jakob Tigges that seized the public’s imagination. What Berlin needed, Mr Tigges said, was a 1,000-metre mountain on the site.
“We invented this idea of The Berg as a sarcastic proposal, as a criticism of the lack of imagination of the planners,” he says. “Symbolically and culturally it was such an important spot that we felt it needed a big idea, and the biggest we could find was a mountain, which was clearly impossible in Berlin.”
But “the irony that was implicit in the project was not understood everywhere” and the proposal “was kicked out immediately”.
Part of the irony of the design that particularly ruffled feathers was that it would leave some of the more desirable parts of the city either in permanent shadow or drenched in constant rainfall, thanks to its orographic effect.
But after images of the planned mountain appeared in the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, the story went international.
“It even appeared on Chinese websites,” Mr Tigges says. “They were discussing the financing of the project.”
Journalists in Germany and elsewhere interviewed specialists who speculated on the feasibility of the project. The consensus, Mr Tigges says, “was that it would cost something between €5bn and €7bn, and take up to 10 years, working day and night, to build”.
Before they knew it, he and his colleagues at his creative and architectural agency Mila found themselves under siege.
“There were companies from Australia and Japan coming to our office and trying to sell us the technology we would need to build a mountain,” he says, laughing. “For three months we couldn’t do anything else. We needed extra people to answer all the phone calls and emails.
“All these guys came here to the office with their ties and briefcases and presentations. If I remember correctly, among them was an engineer who wanted to build a 300-metre-high mountain in Abu Dhabi.”
In the end, he says, a city-wide referendum rejected plans to build on the site, which has been preserved as a large park, “so the mountain worked, if you like, as a kind of placeholder for imagination”.
That, perhaps, will be the ultimate fate of the UAE’s jebel … but then again, this is a nation known for having big ideas that became even bigger realities.
Source: uae news