Millennium Post

Waiting for the rain...

Come early June, eyes turn above to gaze at the pale blue sky with hope, expectation and trepidity. For the sky holds the key to India’s future and fortunes for the rest of the year. Sighting nimbus clouds means unbounded joy. Their absence ushers in gloom on everyone’s face – from farmers, weather scientists and policy makers to the common man. Where are the rains? They are around, but not really!

India is a monsoon economy. Farmers are the first to panic as every farm activity from sowing to harvesting full-grown crops gets derailed. In recent years, monsoon rains have played hooky and led to drought conditions; or have arrived unexpected and flooded vast areas of the country.

Each year, the summer monsoon months of June-September have severe consequences since the south-west monsoon accounts for nearly 80 percent of India’s annual rains. As one-third of cropland is under rain-fed irrigation, any shortfall impacts heavily foodgrain production during that year. This has a cascading effect on the GDP growth. And for the farmer, it is a matter of life and death.
 The country witnessed a freaky weather in March. Unseasonal rains and hailstorm considerably damaged crops in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Over the years, all have been dependent on the weatherman. But, increasingly the accuracy levels of their predictions are tripping. Meteorologists assert their predictions are correct with plus or minus four percent error margins. The fact is even the layman or the farmer experiences an abnormal weather pattern. But climate scientists attribute the change in weather to climate change. A leading private met agency has forecast a grim outlook; it contends the monsoon has already set in.

Climatologists blame it on El Niño (meaning little boy or little Christ) and predict less rainfall this year. El Niños are caused by periodic rise in the sea surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. These warm ocean currents often lead to severe draught in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and India. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon contributes significantly to seasonal climate fluctuations in many regions of the globe, often with substantial implications for human populations and the environment.

During an El Niño, thunderstorm activity shifts eastward away from southern Asia toward the middle of the tropical Pacific Ocean, helping weaken the monsoon circulation over India. Already, El Niño appears to be hampering the usual monsoon circulation. It has missed its June 1 date with Kerala, delayed by several days: its progress to the mainland may be disrupted.

But the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is cautious because its outlooks can help steer national politics. The late arrival and a below-normal monsoon can shake the commodity market and catapult vegetable prices; as witnessed last year. It has said the rains this year will be 95 percent of normal of the Long-Period Average (LPA), the average rainfall received over the last 50 years. The private met agency says it will be 94 per cent. (A normal monsoon means rainfall between 96 per cent and 104 per cent of the 50-year average of 89 cm during June-September).

The IMD is closely monitoring the impact of El Niño on Indian monsoon in June and July as rainfall in these two months is critical for kharif/summer crop sowing. In April, IMD predicted a 60 percent chance of an El Niño developing; and forecast 23 percent chances of a ‘deficit’ monsoon and 33 percent chances of a ‘below-normal’ monsoon and 35 percent chances of a ‘normal’ monsoon.

Latest reports say a weak El Niño pattern in 2014 due to the weakening of the warm pool of water below the surface of the Pacific Ocean leading to significant weakening of trade winds. The predictions bring some hope of economic damage being lower than expected.

Climate scientists have been relying on simple inaccurate statistical methods. The new supercomputing system, the most powerful in the country, set up two months back at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune, is in an experimental stage.

The 2014 monsoon forecast is based on the data from this forecasting system. The facility will help establish an Indian model for weather and climate prediction by 2017 and provide reliable weather and climate services to farmers, fishermen and other countries. It remains to be seen how accurate the predictions will be. However, a deficient rainfall may pose the biggest challenge to the newly-installed Government.

The author is an independent journalist
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