Gather the storm troopers: A look at 150 years of the India Meteorological Department - Hindustan Times
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Gather the storm troopers: A look at 150 years of the India Meteorological Department

May 25, 2024 02:02 PM IST

The agency began with a single employee. It’s seen blue skies, cloudy days. See how it's evolving, but why it still can’t reliably say: Will it rain tomorrow?

When the India Meteorological Department was created in 1875, it had just one employee: the British meteorologist and palaeontologist Henry Francis Blanford.

In a key instance of delayed notice, the warning about the dust storm that hit Mumbai on May 13 only went out about an hour before it struck. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
In a key instance of delayed notice, the warning about the dust storm that hit Mumbai on May 13 only went out about an hour before it struck. (HT Archives)

He held the title of Imperial Meteorological Reporter, and his job was to study India’s climate and weather systematically, in order to issue timely storm warnings and monsoon forecasts.

At the time, India had been under a sort of attack from the weather.

In the winter of 1864, two tropical cyclones ripped through the eastern states, killing over 100,000 people. A series of droughts and famines followed, killing millions more.

The imperial British government, having recently taken over from the East India Company in the wake of the 1857 war of independence, decided to bring the country’s meteorological observatories together under one roof. Until then, they had been run by amateurs, or on the initiative of provincial colonial officials.

And so, in January 1875, IMD was born in Kolkata (it has since moved its headquarters to Delhi).

Now in its 150th year, it is a sprawling organisation that runs hundreds of observatories, 1,500 automated weather stations and 6,000 rainfall monitoring stations across India. It draws data from Doppler radars, weather satellites and climate surveillance, using world-class models to analyse and read the data.

It still often gets the daily forecast wrong, but more on that in a bit.

Monsoon forecasts and large storm warnings remain central to its mission, but it also provides specialised services to government agencies such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Election Commission of India, and to private sector stakeholders. Whether one is running an airport, building a solar-energy farm or organising a mountaineering expedition, one may approach IMD for predictions and fog warnings.

Its astronomical positioning data is used by the defence establishment (to align antennae and radar), by civic bodies (for preparations around festivals) and even by makers of the panchang, the traditional Hindu calendar and almanac.

Things have improved. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, IMD lagged in technology and predictions. Even Bangladesh got a Doppler radar before we did. (Shutterstock)
Things have improved. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, IMD lagged in technology and predictions. Even Bangladesh got a Doppler radar before we did. (Shutterstock)

Elements of surprise

What’s changed, and what hasn’t in 150 years?

Madhavan Rajeevan, former secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, worked at IMD for 21 years and remembers being on site as India prepared to launch Chandrayaan-1, the country’s first lunar probe, in 2008.

He led the team that predicted weather conditions over Sriharikota. “The northeast monsoon had just started a few days earlier, so everyone was really worried,” he says. “But we predicted there would be no thunderstorms and no rain. It happened that way. As we were dispersing from the centre, however, it did rain very heavily.”

It has always been difficult to predict exactly how the monsoon will behave.

The year after IMD was formed, India was hit by another severe drought, leading to crop failures in the Deccan and a famine that lasted for two years and claimed an estimated 9.6 million lives.

In response, Blanford started work on seasonal forecasts of the southwest monsoon. By 1886, India was the first country in the world with systematic long-range forecasting (that’s forecasts that predict weather weeks and months into the future).

In 1904, British physicist and statistician Gilbert Walker was appointed IMD’s director-general of observatories, and introduced measures to improve long-range forecasting. He also published the world’s first descriptions of the oscillation of atmospheric pressure between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which he called the Southern Oscillation. This discovery would be essential to our understanding of the El Nino and La Nina phenomena, which influence climate across the tropics and sub-tropics.

Amid World War 1, Walker began to hire young Indian scientists and clerks to fill vacancies left by British officers. Among those hired in these years was a young PC Mahalanobis, who would go on to be a pioneering statistician and found the Indian Statistical Institute in 1931.

Mahalanobis only worked as a meteorologist for four years (1922-26), but his contributions include a statistical study that suggested an efficient drainage system — rather than higher embankments — as a solution to regular floods in Bengal and Odisha.

He was also close friends with Rabindranath Tagore, a regular visitor to his residence on the first floor of the Alipore Observatory building. Tagore spent hours sitting and writing under a giant banyan tree on the campus (which still stands), the monsoon poet finding his muse in a meteorological observatory.

Weathering heights

“When I joined in 1986, we did not have good infrastructure for weather services. Even Bangladesh got a Doppler radar before IMD did,” says former ministry secretary Rajeevan. “The weather and climate services were not well respected. I remember RK Laxman would put out regular cartoons about our forecasts.”

One features three men standing in pouring rain, two with an umbrella and one without. “That’s right,” the man getting drenched says. “I belong to the weather bureau weather forecast section. How did you guess?”

It was a sad fall from grace, for an organisation that rose to new heights post-Independence, making its own world-class weather observation equipment when most countries were still buying their instruments from the US and Europe at high cost.

A pioneer of the tech-savvy IMD of the post-Independence era was Anna Mani, who joined in 1948 and retired as a deputy director of its instruments division in 1976. A rare woman physicist at the time, her handbook on solar radiation for India, published in 1980, showcased her research into methods of analysing weather based on thermodynamic patterns, rather than on past weather data. The handbook is still in use by meteorologists today.

In these golden years, working at IMD was a matter of prestige. Its data informed national policies and innovations ranging from the five-year-plans and Green Revolution to a growing civil aviation industry.

It started to lag in the 1980s, especially in technological innovation. A US embargo on the transfer of supercomputers to India after the Pokhran-1 nuclear test in 1974 didn’t help. By the ’90s, IMD’s technological handicap was contributing to inaccurate forecasts, eroding faith in it further.

Winds of change

“Today, our data has applications in the water sector, industrial production, the energy and health sectors,” says Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, IMD’s director-general of meteorology. “Now you can find the forecast for (transmission windows of) malaria and dengue every Friday, forecasts for flood management and weather impact on the power grid. We provide inputs to the urban sector, renewable energy, environment, agriculture, transport and tourism.”

Mohapatra has seen, and been part of, the change. In 1999, a super-cyclone hit Odisha, killing over 10,000 people. IMD had vastly underestimated its severity, realising its full extent just two hours before communications networks went down.

Mohapatra, who is from Odisha, was posted in Bhubaneswar at the time, and remembers it as the lowest point in his career.

There was a lack of technology and communication. “We were telling the press one thing, the Delhi office was telling them another. There was no single voice from IMD, which added to the confusion,” he says.

IMD also faced criticism for failing to predict the drought of 2002. In 2006, the central government finally initiated a modernisation effort, bringing the department under the newly formed Ministry of Earth Sciences and assigning it a much larger budget.

Mohapatra wrote a new vision document for its cyclone forecasting.

The renewed effort is visible in the statistics. Fewer than 40 people died in the 2013 Phailin cyclone. “There has been a 40% to 50% improvement in all types of weather forecasts, and cyclones are much more accurately predicted,” Mohapatra says.

IMD in fact provides cyclone forecasts and storm surge warnings to 13 countries in the region, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Iran. IMD Pune is now the World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Climate Centre for South Asia.

There are new challenges. Climate change has made weather prediction more complicated, at the same time as demand for accurate weather forecasting has exploded, Mohapatra admits. But there is ongoing investment in manpower and equipment, including AI and machine-learning programs.

“In the next 20 years, we’ll be able to provide location-specific forecasts at the village level, and our forecast accuracy will continue to improve. We’ll have a weather-ready, climate-smart nation by 2046, where every stakeholder will be able to utilise accurate information in such a way that we will prevent loss of life, and loss of property will be minimised.”

Yes, but will it rain tomorrow? “The monsoon forecast can go wrong any time, any year,” Mohapatra admits. “But regardless of what happens, whether we get praise or brickbats, whether there is a storm, cyclone or flood, our people will be out there, gathering the readings, and the forecast will go up at noon. That’s the beauty of IMD.”

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