Weather 2019: an extreme forecast

It would be no exaggeration to term 2018 as a year of multiple disasters; both in terms of ‘visible disasters’ such as the catastrophic floods in Kerala in August, and ‘silent disasters’ like an unprecedented monsoon rainfall deficit of more than 20% in the northeast region of the country. 

Last year started on a dry note with very low winter precipitation in north India. Meanwhile, spring came early in the Himalayas as Rhododendron arboreum,
a small evergreen tree, started flowering in January, two to three months in advance. This was blamed on an unusually warm spell and the rise in temperature in the hills. 

While North India was dealing with a dry and warm winter, unseasonal rains and hailstorms struck several states in February — Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh — damaging crops over 4.76 lakh hectare area. By March, nine districts in Kerala were declared drought-hit.

Thereafter, 44 intense thunderstorms struck over 16 states killing 423 people. There were a large number of lightning incidents, too. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, there were 36,749 lightning strikes within 13 hours. Several people were killed due to lightning strikes.  

Below normal monsoon

As if these disasters weren’t enough, the southwest monsoon, our main monsoon season (June to September) when the entire country receives rainfall that supports agriculture, ended at a ‘below normal’ note (minus 9%). That too after the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) long-range forecast had predicted a ‘normal’ monsoon. All through the four months of the southwest monsoon, there were prolonged dry spells affecting Kharif (summer) crops. By the end of September, the northeast region of the country ended with a rainfall deficit of more than 20%. 

Predictably, a ‘below normal’ monsoon rainfall has triggered drought in several states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Jharkhand, and parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The situation is grim in the northeast region where states such as Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland had faced floods, but are now dealing with drought conditions. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Jharkhand have sought drought-relief of Rs 7,000 crore, Rs 2,434 crore and Rs 819 crore, respectively. Incidentally, there were over 15 depressions and four cyclones last year — Daye (September), Titli (October), Gaja (November) and Phethai (December).

What makes matters worse is that the year ended with a ‘below normal’ northeast monsoon, too. Unlike the southwest monsoon, northeast monsoon (October to December) brings rainfall to some meteorological subdivisions in south peninsula. Deficient northeast monsoon rainfall is set to accentuate drought conditions in the country. For instance, Chennai has a rainfall deficit of 55%, which is expected to lead to acute water scarcity in the coming months. 

It is clear that 2019 has started with a heavy baggage of multiple disasters and extreme weather events, whose impacts will be visible this year. 

The first big challenge of the year is drought. Officially, six states — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Rajasthan — have already submitted a memorandum to the Centre seeking a total drought relief of Rs 16,773 crore. The situation is severe in Maharashtra and Karnataka where 26 out of 36 districts and 24 out of 30 districts, respectively, are reeling under drought.

As of January 3, there is only 48.1% live water storage in major projects of Maharashtra. Last year, these projects had 68.16% water storage. The situation is particularly bad in Aurangabad division of Marathwada where major projects have 16.11% live water storage only as compared to 63.3% last year. And, a direct fallout of deficient rainfall and drought is over-extraction of groundwater, which will deplete the aquifers and worsen the drought.

El Niño, which is evolving now and may continue till at least springtime this year, may pose the second challenge. An El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become substantially warmer than average, causing a shift in atmospheric circulation. El Niño impacts weather globally and is known to impact our monsoon, too. El Niño years are associated with reduced southwest monsoon rainfall. And, a deficient monsoon this year could spell disaster for the country. But, according to M Rajeevan, secretary, Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, it is too early to comment as it is a moderate El Niño and may not survive till the monsoon season.   

The third challenge, which again will be a fallout of the El Niño, will be the heat waves. El Niño years are known to cause extreme heat waves. Climate scientists are already warning against 2019 being the warmest year on record largely as the result of a possible El Niño event. In 2015 and 2016, which were El Niño years, over 2,500 and 1,600 people were killed due to heat waves in the country. States must keep their heat action plans ready.

The fourth challenge will be increased variability in weather events due to climate change. Acknowledging that 2018 has been a year of many disasters, Rajeevan cautioned that as global warming continues, we should expect an increase in the frequency of these disasters as climate change will cause larger variability on both sides. Therefore, we should expect more floods as well as more deficient rains (droughts). This was evident even last year when several states that braved floods are now staring at drought.

Improved predictions

The Ministry of Earth Sciences is coming up with improved models for short-range weather forecasts and a prediction system for thunderstorms and lightning. It is further improving the prediction of tropical cyclones by developing a coupled (ocean-atmosphere) model. Also, 10 Doppler Weather Radars are being installed this year over three hilly states of northwest India. Another 11 radars are expected to be installed over the plains, including one more in Mumbai, by the end of this year or early next year. The ministry is also implementing an urban flood warning system for Chennai and Mumbai this year.  

The key to sailing through 2019 lies in a better weather forecast, quicker information dissemination and disaster preparedness.   

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai)

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