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The future of forecasting — who can tell? And how accurately?

Jan 28, 2024 04:05 PM IST

The IMD’s new framework will use its over 100 years of data to help industry to use accurate weather information to stay agile in the era of climate change

Earlier this month, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) launched the National Framework for Climate Services (NFCS), marking a significant milestone in India's climate response strategy. The NFCS is a response to enhance the production and utilisation of climate information and services, the IMD said.

The computing to improve extreme weather forecast will be deployed ahead of the completion of the IMD’s 150 years in 2025. (ANI) PREMIUM
The computing to improve extreme weather forecast will be deployed ahead of the completion of the IMD’s 150 years in 2025. (ANI)

“This initiative is part of IMD's strategy to improve its forecasting capabilities and use the latest technological tools to predict extreme weather and climate events more accurately,” said Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director general, IMD, adding that the framework aims to serve as a platform for the production, availability, delivery, and application of science-based climate monitoring and prediction services.

"We have got a lot of climate data from 1901 onwards. While people are utilising weather information broadly, climate information is not being used to the same scale,” said Mohapatra, adding that there are practical applications of this data. "For instance, when planning tourism in a particular region, studying the region's climate is crucial, and we have the data for this."

“The idea is to look at every sector, impacted by climate change, where we can plan better, prepare ourselves, and safeguard livelihood while maximising benefits. … We are going to work with various state government agencies, academic and research institutes, and convince them of the utility of this climate data,” he added.

As of now, the framework focuses on safeguarding four major sectors – agriculture, energy, health, and disaster management, and plans are afoot to expand the sectors.

HT spoke to experts from each sector to understand how weather forecasting is indispensable.

Agriculture: from sowing to pest control

While accurate forecasting is vital for planning sowing, harvesting, and managing crop diseases, timely weather information can help farmers make informed decisions, thus minimising risks and optimising crop yields, said experts.

Agriculture operations depend on weather parameters, especially rainfall, said Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, former secretary, ministry of earth sciences. “Farmers require details of monsoon onset, dry and wet spells, quantity of rainfall, information about heavy precipitation, thunder and hailstorms, strong winds, temperature and soil moisture variations,” he said, adding that accurate forecasts for each of these elements are important to the sector and promoting sustainable agricultural practices.

The timing of agricultural activities is crucial, said AN Ganeshamurthy, emeritus scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)-Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru. “Planting time and harvesting time are critical stages in agriculture. Advanced weather information is essential for farmers to optimise these timings, thereby avoiding adverse conditions that could harm crops,” he said.

For dryland agriculture (crops in areas of deficient rainfall), efficient irrigation management is important. “Here, precise weather forecasts play a key role in ensuring effective water resource management,” added Rajeevan.

Weather conditions also influence the prevalence of pests and diseases. “Weather conditions affect livestock, requiring careful planning for their well-being,” Ganeshamurthy added.

Thus dissemination of information is vital. Robust social media platforms and other electronic media can make it very easy to reach farmers in every corner of the country.

Health: Enhancing climate resilience

Climate services in the health sector involve predicting outbreaks of weather-related diseases and preparing for heat waves, cold spells or other extreme weather events, which can have significant health impacts. This is especially important in regions prone to extreme weather conditions. Rajeevan said health is also dependent on weather and climate parameters. “Many vector-borne diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are weather dependent. Also, air pollution and cold and heat stress all have a bearing on ensuring timely forecasts,” he said.

“Science-based climate forecasting and prediction services enhance the health sector’s adaptation response to climate change. It is both a timely as well as essential resource to strengthen climate resilience in the health sector,” said Dr Poornima Prabhakaran, director at the Centre for Health Analytics Research and Trends (CHART), Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University.

Health professionals, as ‘first responders’ in climate disasters, must be prepared to anticipate, prepare, adapt, cope, and deliver uninterrupted services. Prabhakaran said the importance of linking healthcare facilities with early warning systems and meteorological services provided by the NFCS should be the focus.

“Acute climate events such as floods, storms, droughts, and heatwaves can lead to the destruction of infrastructure, flooding, and interrupted supply of critical resources like energy, water, food, and transport, which pose significant challenges to the health sector,” she said.

Underlining the necessity of an inter-sectoral response Prabhakaran insisted on the importance of responding effectively to early warning systems.

Disaster management: Provide long-range forecasts

G Padmanabhan, a disaster risk reduction expert and former emergency analyst at the United Nations Development Programme, said the need of the hour is to enhance long-range forecasting systems for local disasters. “Currently, short-range forecasts (24-72 hours) being issued by the IMD are extremely beneficial, but there is a need to have longer-range forecasts (at least 7-10 days) under this sector to mobilise appropriate resources for a region,” he said, adding that the significance of longer-range forecasts protects local economies.

Under IMD’s current cyclone monitoring and forecasting strategy, tropical weather outlooks are issued for early awareness, national and hourly bulletins for real-time updates on cyclones, and tracking of cyclonic disturbances to predict their paths. Also, wind and storm surge warnings are issued to alert coastal areas. “An interactive track of cyclone feature provides dynamic cyclone trajectory information and we employ short to medium and extended range model guidance for predictions ranging from a few days to seasonal forecasts,” said Mohapatra.

Padmanabhan said, “Cyclone forecasting and tracking has been excellent by IMD and there has been a lot of progress but a similar forecasting framework with such accuracy is needed for all other hazards including high-level flooding, heatwaves, extreme snowfall, drought monitoring.”

“Weather forecasts and early warning systems are very important for a robust disaster management system. Without any information and forecasts, successful disaster management cannot be done,” said Rajeevan, highlighting the relevance of this information, particularly for managing tropical cyclones, thunderstorms, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, floods, and droughts.

Energy: Use forecasting for renewable sources

Dr Parthasarathi Mukhopadhyay, a scientist specialising in the predictability of weather in high-resolution models at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology under MoES said the significance of accurate weather forecasting was useful particularly for renewable energy sources. “Weather predictions are crucial for managing renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, highlighting the variability of output in these sources due to weather conditions,” he said.

“The variability of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, which are heavily dependent on weather conditions, necessitates precise and reliable weather predictions. Such forecasts are essential for the efficient management and integration of these renewable sources into the power grid,” said Rajeevan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced the Pradhan Mantri Suryoday Yojana, to install 10 million rooftop solar panels, which complements India's goal to achieve 500 GW of renewable energy by 2030.

Highlighting the necessity for more reliable probabilistic weather forecasts with higher spatial resolution, especially in the context of the climate crisis, Mukhopadhyay said, "Such high-resolution forecasts need to reach the district level. However, there are challenges, as numerical models have a limit of prediction accuracy due to inherent errors and uncertainties. In this case, artificial intelligence and data-driven techniques will be helpful."

Mukhopadhyay echoed Padmanabhan’s views for longer-range forecasts, particularly in the energy sector as well. "Current forecasting skills are between 3 to 5 days. This needs to be enhanced to 7 days to 10 days.”

A critical factor in improving forecasts is dense observations that feed into the model. "Such strategies are needed for wind forecasts at a height of around 100 million or incoming solar radiation reaching the ground for solar prediction,” he said.

Badri Chatterjee works as a Senior Communications Manager (South Asia) at ICLEI South Asia, that works on local action for global sustainability and support cities to advance sustainability at the local, regional and sub-national levels in South Asia. The views expressed are personal.

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