Why you shouldn’t take the weather prediction with a pinch of salt

  • Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 13, 2016 14:12 IST
The India Meteorological Department has predicted an above normal monsoon season this year. (Arun Sharma/ HT File Photo)

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), the country’s 140-year-old weather bureau, faces a credibility test like no other state-run office. Each summer, millions await its yearly monsoon forecast. If the IMD botches up, it gets flak from the government and falls in public’s eyes. Often, it is blamed for faltering, but unfairly so.

An international review though places the department at the top of most countries who try to similarly forecast long-range climate events, such as the monsoon.

An audit by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) – of which the IMD is one of six regional specialised meteorological centers – shows that the IMD’s forecast performance is second to none.

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The minimum benchmark set by the WMO is a forecast “skill level” of 0.6. Skill, in the world of meteorology, is a benchmark of forecast accuracy. The higher the skill, the more accurate the forecasts. India is currently clocking a ‘skill level’ of roughly 0.5. That’s more or less the same the skill level of many developed economies, such as UK, France and Canada when it comes to long-range events, such as monsoon and cyclones. Japan has a lower skill than India’s in predicting rains.

A simple analytical tool Hindustan Times has run shows that the IMD is able to get its forecasts right about 60% of the time, going by its performance in monsoon prediction over the last 10 years. That’s no less than UK’s prediction capabilities related to seasonal forecasts.

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Yet, when Met’s predictions go wrong, as it did in 2009 when India had its worst drought in three decades, it can have devastating consequences in a country where two-thirds depend on a farm income.

For this year, the IMD has predicted an above normal monsoon which will break two years of drought and partly resuscitate industries hobbled by a deepening rural distress. The news of possibly good rains will also bring much relief weather wise, given the IMD’s prediction of warmer, scorching summer.

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