Here’s some fiction: India’s prediction of the monsoon, the world’s largest seasonal weather system that directly influences the economies of at least nine nations, is at best vague. You’d be better off flipping a coin to predict the rains, the joke goes.
And now the fact: The Met department has come out pretty much at the top of most countries that try to similarly forecast the monsoon, according to an international audit.
Yet, India’s record at predicting the vital rain-bearing system isn’t sufficiently good, with an accuracy rate of 50%. This means the state-run weather services behemoth gets the monsoon right about half the time. That may not be good enough, but others aren’t doing better either, pointing to how tough the task is. Nations the monsoon directly impacts are Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia and Japan.
“But our forecasts have done better or equal to that of even the UK, Australia and Japan for various parameters of the monsoon,” said Shailesh Nayak, a PhD in Geology and, as the secretary to the ministry of earth sciences, one of two professional scientists to head a government department.
Nayak isn’t talking through his hat. A recent audit by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) -of which the India Meteorological Organisation (IMD) is a regional specialised meteorological centre, apart from five others – has shown that the IMD’s forecast performance is second to none. But this doesn’t mean scientists like Nayak can rest on their statistical laurels.
The minimum benchmark set by the WMO is a forecast “skill level” of 0.6. “Skill”, in the world of meteorology, is a measure of forecast accuracy. The higher the better. India’s 50% accuracy means it’s currently clocking a skill level of roughly 0.5.
There are many reasons why India will need the ramp-up. But here’s the most ominous one: It is now conclusively proven that the monsoon, vital for Asia’s third-largest economy, itself is undergoing the equivalent of a virus mutation. In other words, its DNA is changing. The monsoon isn’t bringing rains the way it used to. Much like an individual with a mood disorder, it’s been switching on and off, sometimes dumping one month’s worth of rains in a week.
A Rs 400 crore new “monsoon mission” India is working on is aimed at achieving a skill level of 0.7 by upgrading the model. That translates to a 70% accuracy rate.
The starting point for the makeover is somewhere deep inside the Bay of Bengal, where a large team of heavily-guarded Indian and American scientists have set up a floating base. You could say it's the equivalent of the International Space Station on earth, a senior scientist told HT.
The people are isolated and provisions are ferried to the base routinely. Communication happens through satellite phones.
In Maharashtra’s Mahabaleswar city, the government has set up a cloud physics lab through global collaboration. The Bay of Bengal station is aimed at understanding how the topmost layer of sea interacts with the atmosphere.
The Mahabaleswar lab seeks to ascertain if cloud formation patterns are changing. All of this information will be used to upgrade the Met’s forecast model. Alongside, a host of countries will be gifted the data, as India has emerged as a cornerstone for global climate answers because of its geographic location.