Monsoon prediction, a challenging research on variability

Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, the secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) is the dynamic new helmsman, confident of chartering new territory that will transform lives under the banner of science. With a background of pathbreaking research on monsoon variability and prediction, cloud-radiation interaction and climate variability and change, the secretary plans to forge ahead in climate research. In an affable conversation with Sulagna Chattopadhyay, the secretary outlines the trajectory in the last ten years and maps the future growth potential of the MoES.

G’nY. What are, in your view, the three key contributions of MoES in transforming lives?

The three key contributions of MoES in transforming lives are agro-met services for farmers, ocean services and fishery advisories for coastal population and the tsunami early warning system.

Agriculture in India is mostly rainfed. Therefore, India Meteorological Department (IMD) provides agro-met services to the farmers in the country. At present, agro-met advisories are issued through 130 agro-met field units (AMFU) and advisories are provided for 636 districts of the country. Today, around 11.5 million farmers are directly benefitted by this SMS enabled service as compared to a meagre 5 million farmers covered in April 2014. Farmers use weather information and advisories to postpone sowing time, change crop variety, manage irrigation and spray pesticides and insecticides. As per the third party assessment by the National Centre for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), if we consider four major crops (wheat, paddy, cotton and sugarcane), farmers in the country benefitted over INR 42,000 crore by using the agro-met advisories.

Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad had established advanced ocean services for increased productivity for fisher people. It uses satellite technology for the forecast of potential fishing zone (PFZ) information along the Indian coastline and island regimes. Economic analysis of this outreach indicates that the real growth rate of gross value added in marine fisheries GDP can go up by 7.8 per cent per annum from the current level of 3.9 per cent once the PFZ advisories are operationalised uniformly across the country in all coastal areas. Additional profit in the hands of fishers would be around INR 3,000 crore annually.

After the killer tsunami in 2004, INCOIS established a world class tsunami early warning system. Till now the warning centre has provided very useful information and has established a record of averting false alarms in case of tsunamis. There are associated economic benefits of these warnings too. For example the ‘no tsunami threat’ advisory issued avoids relocation and rehabilitation expenditures of human settlement in the affected regions.

G’nY. Monsoon plays a grave role in India’s economy. What are the areas of concern as far as monsoon prediction is concerned?

Monsoon prediction is extremely important as our economy squarely depends on it. Over the past ten years, monsoon prediction capability has further improved. The operational prediction system based on statistical model proved skilful, as the prediction of the 2015 deficient monsoon was proved correct. We have also now a dynamical prediction system for both extended range forecasts (next 20 days) and seasonal forecasts (up to one season), which too is very promising.

However, prediction of Indian monsoon remains the most challenging task. We still do not fully comprehend many physical mechanisms that cause the monsoon to vary from year to year. Our present understanding is that it is influenced by El Nino and the Indian Ocean. But there could be other forcings of variability and internal variability can mask the potential skill of seasonal forecasts. Meeting the requirements of forecasts with higher spatial resolution (say state level) will be very exacting.

G’nY. In a changing climate scenario, extreme event prediction acquires a very important role. The entire nation depends on the MoES for timely warnings that can save thousands of lives. What can India expect in the near future in this regard?

Yes, in the changing climate scenario, we are expecting more frequent and intense severe weather events like heavy rainfall, flash floods, heat waves etc. We are therefore devising a strategy to deal with prediction of these severe weather events, which may include dense observational network and high-resolution ensemble forecasting system for probabilistic forecasts. However, these weather prediction models face serious challenges in predicting heavy rainfall. We need to improve them by data assimilation and also by improving model physics. We are setting up specialised observatories over central India­—one is being set up at Sagar University as we speak, for high quality atmospheric observations, which can help us improve model physics.

G’nY. MoES is also mandated to provide sustainable livelihoods for many. How climate services planned by MoES are going to help in this regard?

The Ministry is now emphasising on strengthening climate services which include climate monitoring, prediction, diagnostics, development of climate data sets and climate change assessments. World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has initiated a global framework for climate services, which we will organise into a national framework. The purpose is to provide climate services for specific sectors like agriculture, water resources, energy, and health.

G’nY. Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalaya are glacial lands that hold much promise for the future. What in your opinion does the study of these regions provide that will help India’s teeming millions?

Arctic and Antarctic are important as a part of global cryosphere system. Due to climate change, there could be changes in the cryosphere system. We need to monitor, document and even predict such changes, as any imbalance in the cryosphere system may affect the global energy balance and impact the climate systems of tropical regions including the monsoon. In fact, the preliminary studies of the rapidly melting Arctic sea reveal a strong tele-connections between the Arctic and the Indian monsoon.

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