Meet the men who mastered the art of weather
Independent weathermen are increasingly gaining popularity across the country for their localised and precise weather forecasts.india Updated: Jun 10, 2018 12:19 IST
These days, every time the sky darkens, Navdeep Dahiya rushes to the roof of his house with a camera and an anemometer. The objective, he says, is to take photographs of the clouds, study their direction and measure wind speed. “This is the time of the year when I start chasing the monsoon. I make localised weather forecasts for Haryana. A lot of farmers in villages around Rohtak and other neighbouring districts are ardent followers of my forecasts on Facebook,” says Dahiya. The grassy backyard of his house in Rohtak serves as a mini weather station, complete with a wind wand, anemometer, digital thermometer, and manual and automatic rain gauge.
Dahiya is not an IMD (India Meteorological Department) scientist, but he is a part of the growing community of independent weathermen, who post their forecasts on their blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter handles such as Kea Weather, Chennai Rains, Live Weather of India, Weather of India, Vagaries of the Weather, and Weather of Kolkata to name a few. Most source data from various private and government weather agencies across the globe, including IMD, interpret it and make their own predictions.
These self-taught independent weathermen — IT guys, businessmen, marketing professionals, and students — believe that even in this age of supercomputers and advanced algorithm-based numerical weather prediction models, human element and understanding of local climatology are key to correctly forecasting weather for a particular area. And they believe how you communicate the forecast is as important as the forecast itself.
In fact, some of these independent weathermen such as Chennai-based Pradeep John are social media celebrities — his Facebook page ‘Tamil Nadu Weatherman’ has over 5.6 lakh followers. To put it in perspective, IMD’s Facebook page has about 30,000 followers.
John started his Facebook page in 2014, and what made him famous were his accurate forecasts during the Chennai rains in 2015. Every day, he posts colourful charts and pictures, telling what the weather is going to be like in the city. “I analyse various numerical models, make an assessment based on my local experience and post my forecasts,” says John.
In fact, the growing popularity of independent weathermen can be attributed to their highly localised nowcasting—short-term prediction for about two hours. Some of them like Kolkata-based Santosh Subramanian make a forecast for specific villages and small towns, where they have a huge following.
“Unlike IMD’s forecasts that cover a region comprising several districts such as ‘Gangetic West Bengal’, my forecasts are often for a 50-km radius,” says Subramanian, who mainly focuses on Bengal. “People are interested in weather like never before. But you have to be specific, break the technical jargon for them so that they can take action. The more precise you’re, the better the chances of the forecasts being accurate.”
Until the beginning of December 2015, when Chennai witnessed its worst rainfall in 100 years, Pradeep John, who works as a project development manager with a financial services company, had only about 500 followers on his Facebook page. His accurate forecasts during the devastating rains made him a much-sought-after weatherman and the number of followers shot up to 70,000 by mid-December. That year, he predicted heavy rain on December 1 and asked people to stay at home.
“Thousands of people thanked me. It feels great when your forecast helps so many people,” John said. Though many lives were lost on that fateful day, many were saved thanks to his timely forecast. A year later, in December in 2016, he warned of the severity of the Vardah cyclone. “I made a forecast that it would be hitting Chennai and the wind speed would touch 100 kmph. I was proved right again,” he says.
The Facebook post about the cyclone, he says, had a whopping two million reach. So how does he get it right? “It is all about how you interpret data; I do not blindly follow any numerical model. There have been times when the model suggested the possibility of rain, and still I predicted no rain based on my own experience and understanding of the local atmospheric conditions,” says John. “A weatherman should be entirely certain of any extreme event before making any predictions about it.”
The senior-most member of the community of independent weathermen is Mumbai-based Rajesh Kapadia, 65, who is perhaps the country’s first weather blogger. Kapadia started his weather blog called Vagaries of the Weather almost a decade ago. Like most independent weathermen, he cites many instances of his predictions—sometimes at complete variance with that of the Met department— proving right. “Last year, the official forecaster predicted that heavy rain would continue in Mumbai till August 30, while I predicted the rain fury was over, and I was right,” says Kapadia. “But I am not competing with IMD. I learnt a lot from them in my teens when I often visited their office.”
So what is the most important factor in weather prediction going right – or wrong? “It is mostly the multi-level winds high in the atmosphere, especially, the topmost level. Any change in that can make all predictions go haywire,” Kapadia says. For the uninitiated, multilayered winds in the atmosphere are also known as Jet streams and have a huge influence on the climate because they can push air masses around and affect weather patterns.
No wonder then weather forecast is quite a tricky business. A bit of miscalculation and your reputation is under a cloud. Last month, the Met department faced flak on multiple occasions for giving wrong or not giving any alerts at all. It was severely criticised for issuing a warning about thunderstorms accompanied with squall and hail in large parts of northern India, including Delhi, prompting authorities to shut schools and put in place other emergency measures. “I predicted a normal dust storm along with light to moderate rainfall, and I was proved right,” says Dahiya. “ I think the Met department wanted to play safe because it had failed to put out an alert for the May 2 dust storm and rain that killed many people in UP and Rajasthan.”
Dahiya, whose Facebook page is called Live Weather of India, points out that one cannot blame weathermen, official or independent, beyond a point. Weather forecast, he says, is an ‘educated guess’ at best. “Meteorologists cannot control the weather; they can only observe past and present atmospheric patterns, and data and apply this information to make their own assessment of what may happen in the future,” says Dahiya. “But, yes, IMD should not use vague words like ‘isolated’, ‘scattered’, ‘widespread’, and be more specific in terms of locations in their predictions,” says Dahiya. Agrees Subramanian, “Most people won’t understand when you say there is going to be ‘thunderstorms at isolated places’; better to say it is going to rain heavily with strong winds in so and so places.”
These weathermen are often approached by people for weather updates almost on a daily basis not just on the social media but also on the phone. “People ask me questions like whether they can have a wedding or a party on a particular day,” says Kapadia. “Last year, I got a call from a person in Karnal whose cousin was getting married; there was a prediction of rain that day and he kept calling me every hour to know where the clouds had reached,” says Dahiya. “He wanted me to continuously chase the clouds for him. Eventually, the clouds did reach Karnal but skipped that part of the city where the wedding was being organised. He was very happy.”
These weathermen are connected on a WhatsApp group where they share their experiences and knowledge. They want to create a common website to make it easier for their followers to access their predictions on one platform. “We plan to have automated weather stations of our own across the country through crowd-funding to be self-sufficient in getting real-time data such as wind speed, rainfall, and the temperature at a particular place,” says Subramanian. “We are hopeful of funding. After all, we are the common man’s weathermen.”