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Imagining a climate-resilient India

Climate change is real and India’s vulnerability is all too evident. In discussion with Radhika Dutt, Dr Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, delves into India’s vision of becoming a climate-resilient, sustainable economy

In today's age of climate change and growing unpredictability of weather patterns, how much more relevant has earth science studies become?

The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) aims to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the study of our planet. The Earth isn't uniform. It is made of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, and each while unique, is also deeply interlinked with others in their processes, responses and consequences. So, if we want to address any issue of the environment – whether pollution, monsoon changes or ocean services – we must first gather a very clear understanding of all five systems that make the Earth, their unique properties as well as interactions. Therefore, no doubt, it is of utmost importance today that we have dedicated institutions and ministries that study earth science and the interactions that form its system.

In India, there is a strong assimilation of departments. For instance, for weather prediction, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Delhi, and National Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF), Delhi, are constantly collaborating to develop models. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune, also intervenes while the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad, is roped in for ocean-related information – so you see, it is a network of various interests that is coalesced together. Further, we are constantly collaborating with the academic community wherever we feel there is a deficiency or any expertise is required. Earlier, the weather implied a complete dependence only on IMD; now, that era has gone and we have a range of stakeholders involved.

India's vast coastline makes it even more susceptible to climate-related vagaries such as coastal inundation, food insecurity, etc. How must we prepare to avert these imminent threats?

Climate change is no more a myth – it is real and its impacts can be seen across many parts of the world, including India. We must adopt a two-pronged strategy which first, focuses on improving forecasting services in weather changes, ocean turbulence, etc.; and second, once the forecasting has been achieved, results have to be conveyed to the people effectively and efficiently to save valuable lives and infrastructure. Therefore, we need both a reliable forecasting station and a highly-effective and fool-proof disaster management system. In these two fields, large investments are being made to improve observational systems and build more advanced models.

We also need to be quicker and for that, ordinary people have to be equipped to react appropriately in these situations of panic and fear. The successful evacuation during Cyclone Fani in Odisha (April-May 2019) has set an inspiring precedent and must be followed each time. To everyone's benefit, information on Fani was available at least four to five days before the winds struck, giving enough lead time. Moving ahead, we also have to prepare ourselves for disasters that are more imminent, where time for preparation and evacuation will not be as conducive.

The United Nations declared 2020-30 as the 'Decade of Oceans' – how is India approaching this global vision?

Oceans cover a majority of our planet but much remains unknown. It is not wrong to say that we know significantly more about the world beyond our planet than the oceans on our planet. Oceans are a most essential resource to mankind for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, they assist in the regulation of weather and climate while also being rich in resources, both living and non-living. Sea-beds have remained untouched by human civilisation and are ripe for exploration. India has already received a nod from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for two exploration projects, one on polymetallic nodules (PMN) in the Indian Ocean and the other on hydrothermal sulphides.

Oceans also provide abundant sources of energy creation, particularly clean and ocean energy. We are trying to advance technologies to better utilise ocean waves and the energy they constantly generate. The other important feature is thermal grading, which is the difference of temperature between the top and bottom layers of the ocean. Thermal grading can be used for electricity generation and also to convert seawater into potable water through desalination plants. We already have three such plants in Lakshwadeep and six more are underway.

How is India planning its Deep Ocean Mission?

The Deep Ocean Mission is still awaiting its final approval but work in our ministry is already underway. It has four-five components, of which, the most important will be the development of a man-submersible which will resemble a spacecraft that can be submerged into depths of the ocean. It can carry three people and reach a low of 6,000 m for about 12 hours. A prime challenge with the ocean is that water exerts a great amount of pressure. So, we need technology to develop an exact model of the man-submersible that will be conducive to the environment and also fulfil our purpose. It is quite tricky and only five countries have the requisite technology so far. The main component of the submersible will be the sphere that will host three humans. It will be made of titanium with a thickness of about 8 cm. This technology is still amiss, though National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai, is developing a system.

How important is the study of past climate to determine a model of our planet's future?

The past lends many clues. By tracing incidents of our near past, we can make robust conclusions about what can be expected in the future. For instance, by drawing correlations between past temperatures and nature of climate – we can estimate what can be dangerous for the future. Manual observations began only 100-150 years back with the use of thermometers, barometers and sophisticated machinery. For inferences from before that, we can see tree rings and ice cones, especially from Antarctica, to grab a glimpse of the past.

In fact, sometimes, by digging into the Earth to a few hundred meters, we can receive samples from many hundred years back, carrying clues of geophysical conditions prevailing then. Many pursue these studies, particularly on the ocean floor. For instance, India's participation in the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP) focussed on the Himalayan orogeny through a study of the Laxmi Basin on Arabian Sea, to understand how monsoons have changed in the country. The expedition required huge investments and India took a lead role – it was a good experiment!

The unpredictability of earthquakes remains an insurmountable problem. Given India's dense population and vulnerability thereof, how are we as a nation preparing to deal with this disaster?

With earthquakes, predictability is almost absent and technology too hasn't been adequately developed. Some countries, however, do use early warning systems where they start tracing tremors.

When an earthquake strikes, you have till about a few minutes before its reactions reach the surface. This little window of time can be used for some cases; of course, we can't evacuate people but for top-security services like nuclear plants or oil fields, it can be helpful. Japan has such a system where its nuclear plants automatically shut down on registering tectonic disturbance. We too can adopt such technology but beyond that it is difficult. Especially because the Himalayas make for very tough topography and communication is still limited. Even when some seismic movement is noticed, communicating information to the mainland quickly is difficult.

The effects of climate change are going to multiply and developing relevant technology is a priority. How can we match this challenge of evolving new knowhow?

The emphasis on green technology and switch to non-conventional energy has received positive feedback. But honestly, we have to do much more than what we are doing right now. We have to think about mitigating climate change and what technologies are at all needed towards this end. This is probably not the work of earth sciences alone. We will need to rope in other institutions in science, technology and research. The impacts of climate change will be diverse, whether in agriculture, water resources or health. So, we needed concentrated efforts on all these fronts. We are working but our pace can be more inspiring.

To further enrich earth science studies in the country, what lacunas do you think need undoing?

We need huge investments as earth science is really the need of the hour and constant upgradation is absolutely necessary. We also need trained people; we are currently facing a major shortage of dedicated personnel. Since earth science is not a natural science like physics or chemistry, universities refrain from teaching this subject. So, we have to hire people from mathematics and physics, and train them before they become suitable for the subject. We really need a flow of investments here as recruiting talented people directly from the market is quite onerous. We are trying to encourage universities to begin training students as we will fund them, so in the time ahead, hopefully, we will be better equipped. But broadly, capital and human resource persist as the most troubling barriers.

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