Predicting is Protecting

article

This year north India saw an unprecedented heatwave in spring. In 2013, Kedarnath was devastated due to extreme rains. In 2005, Mumbai was almost drowned. This is where earth sciences studies come in

Dr M Rajeevan

Dr M Rajeevan

Dr Madhavan Nair Rajeevan is currently the Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, which is now a key scientific-economic department. He was earlier Director, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. He specialises in monsoon variability

The Mumbai floods of 2005 and the total immobilisation of the financial capital of the country first woke India up to the dual crises of sudden, almost unpredictable intense weather events and lack of waste management in a megalopolis. Though many NGOs have come to join hands in the cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru to clean up their mess and stricture the denizens about cleanliness, which solves only one part of the problem.

The other is our ability to predict extreme weather events, which, due to climate change globally, has been increasing in frequency. Though a city like Mumbai could recover within a few weeks from that kind of a catastrophe, the backbone of the economy, the farming society is the hardest hit.

There are many types of extreme weather events: unpredicted droughts and short but intense rainfall in parts of the country, heat waves and cold waves, all of which have their economic and hence social costs. Extreme rainfall, like the one in Mumbai, and later, in Kedarnath in 2013, not only end in creating flash floods but erode a huge slab of the top soil, which is where the vegetation – especially food that we eat – draws its sustenance from.

This is an economic disaster that most people in urban areas never realise, but it hits them hard when the prices of basic food products, vegetables, cereals, oil and fruits hit

the ceiling.

And this is where the Ministry of Earth Sciences finds its role in predictions of such events. Earth System Science considers interactions between the Earth’s spheres, Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Cryosphere, Lithosphere, and the Biosphere, as well as the impact of human societies on these components. It seeks a deeper understanding of the physical, chemical, biological and human interactions that determine the past, current and future states of the Earth. Earth system science provides a physical basis for understanding the world in which we live and upon which humankind seeks to achieve sustainability.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), which was established in 2006, holistically addresses all the five components of the Earth System, and their complex interactions to provide services for weather, climate, ocean, coasts, hydrology, seismology, and natural hazards; to explore and exploit marine living and non-living resources in a sustainable way and to explore the three polar regions (Arctic, Antarctic and Himalaya).

Strategic Steps

Over the past decade, the quality of weather, climate, ocean and seismological services provided by the ministry has substantially improved due to systematic efforts to augment observations, develop adequate modelling strategy, conduct cutting-edge research and invest in human resources development. The services provided by the ministry are being effectively used by different agencies, stakeholders and governments at all levels – state, district, city for social and economic benefits including saving of human lives and minimising damages to life and property due to natural disasters.

At present, weather forecasts have a good skill for about 4-5 days. There is a need to push the present skill beyond 4-5 days to meet the requirements of users. Quantitative Precipitation Forecast is an essential component of decision making for water resource management and flood forecasting.

However, prediction models are known to have large errors in terms of quantum of rainfall, especially about higher amounts. Problems exist in predicting tropical cyclone intensity, heavy rainfall associated with its landfall and tracks of recurring cyclones.

There is a great challenge in predicting an increasing number of severe weather events like heavy rainfall and associated flash/urban floods, severe convective storms and heat waves. Due to the high density of population, urban areas are especially vulnerable to severe weather events. There is also scope for further improving the skill of monsoon forecasts both on the extended range and seasonal times scale to help different sectors like agriculture to contribute better to society and the economy.

Tech Breakthrough

The observational network with India Meteorological Department will be further augmented to improve an accuracy of weather forecasts. Ideally, an atmospheric observational network at a 25x25km grid and upper air observations at 100x100 km, complemented by Multi-platform Satellite and aircraft based profiler observations, Doppler Radars, Wind Profilers, Radiometers, Lightning detectors, and LIDARs are required.

Since users, especially farmers, require weather forecasts at the block level, an advanced weather prediction system with high resolution (12 km) global model will be soon implemented. The present district level advisories for farmers will be extended to block level and will be disseminated through 660 district centers, which will be set up by 2019. In 2016, the ministry introduced heat wave forecasts, which were used effectively by many states by initiating state action plans to save thousands of lives. This year, many more states are initiating state action plans for heat waves.

The ministry will implement a new modelling and observational strategy for generating probabilistic forecasts for severe weather events more accurately with ample lead time for effective disaster management. Further research will be initiated on monsoon variability, especially its linkage to the Indian Ocean/Polar Regions and improve prediction on extended to seasonal time scales. This will need improvement of current coupled climate models, especially their fidelity in correctly simulating the Indian Ocean linkages. To meet the requirements of climate change assessments, it is planned to develop an advanced Earth System Model for developing regional climate change scenarios. For generating high-resolution weather forecasts, the present high-performance computing system will be upgraded into 6-7 petaflop system by end of 2017.

Other future initiatives proposed are strengthening of present climate services for various societal applications in areas such as agriculture, water resources, health and Energy, development of research test beds and climate reference stations and process studies, services for renewable energy sector, initiation of an Urban Meteorology programme, and study of regional hydrological cycle including development of flood warning systems for major river basins.

Progress Scored

A lot of progress has been achieved in providing useful ocean services during the last decade. However, there are several new challenges for the oceanographic community in the country to tackle. The large population of India, living along the 7,516 km of coast line is exposed to a number of hazards from the oceans and their living areas need to be made safer.

Planned dense ocean observations and high-resolution ocean models are urgently required over the Indian Ocean to meet the challenges in providing improved ocean services to the nation. For strengthening the ongoing ocean services, the present ocean observing system should be sustained and expanded by including robotic observing systems.

The data buoy system will be further strengthened with newer platforms with more specific sensors. Further, experiments such as Observation System Evaluation and Observation System Simulation Experiments are required for planning optimal observational networks/programmes. The present day ocean models with finer horizontal and vertical resolutions are adequate to simulate most of the variability and processes in the oceans. However, the accurate simulation of abrupt changes in ocean parameters due to less understood processes and extreme events are yet to be achieved. The present ocean services will also be extended to cater to the needs of different regions. In view of the importance of coastal processes, a Centre of Excellence for coastal research is envisaged. Other projects being planned are to develop beach tourism specific forecast products and Ocean Biogeographic information system and census of marine life. Since the Indian Ocean is warming at a higher rate than the other oceans, substantial efforts are required to understand the causes of rapid warming and its impact on monsoon variability and sea level.

Coastal Resources

India with approximately 3.2 million sq km Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has a vast potential of the variety of living and non-living resources, which can substantially contribute to economic development of the country and enhance societal benefits. Societal & economic benefits that could accrue from ocean-based resources are energy (both non-renewable and renewable), water, minerals (including beach placers and deep sea deposits), food and other living resources. Survey and exploration of minerals, renewable / non-renewable energy resources and technology development for extraction of the above are the key areas where the efforts are directed.

As India’s economy grows, it is necessary to contribute to global Blue Economy (wealth from oceans) by active participation in generating renewable energy from oceans, resource utilisation and protection, while keeping sustainability as a key issue. The ministry has been carrying out ocean technology development activities for the last two decades and now proposes to develop a national strategy for next 15 years to ensure reasonable returns on the investments in ocean research, exploration and all marine operations.

Major projects envisaged during the next 15 years to boost the blue economy are a development of relevant technology for utilisation of living and non-living resources like water, energy, minerals etc. Low Temperature Thermal Desalination (LTTD) plants in thermal power stations, self-powered LTTD based desalination plants using Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) in islands, offshore wind platforms, extraction of biofuel from microalgae, large-scale cage culturing, manganese nodule mining system development, exploration of sulphides, and autonomous scoring system are planned to be taken up.

It is also envisaged to develop various types of underwater vehicles including manned submersibles, procure newer ships, set up a state-of-the-art sea front facility at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, establish a model fishing harbour, and develops environmental friendly coastal protection, to name a few other initiatives that have been proposed. Marine biota being very diverse has good potential for its utilisation in many technological activities.

Marine Biotechnology should make an important contribution to economic benefits. Efforts are being made in the areas of Deep sea microbial isolation for medicine, marine algal technology for energy and offshore cage culture for food.

Other research initiatives are studies on zooplankton, coastal pelagic species, harmful algal blooms, and ornamental fish culture. Studies on coastal erosion, multi-hazard coastal vulnerability mapping and monitoring of water quality also will be taken up.

A national Deep Ocean Mission is planned by the ministry with the collaboration of other science ministries in India as well as academic research institutions from abroad. The mission will address exploring deep oceans around the country for minerals, energy, food, medicine and understanding deep-ocean science including geophysical hazards. A specialised centre for deep sea research is also on the anvil.

Poles and Himalaya

Variability in the polar environment has a large global impact. The changes in ice cover, snow, etc. have a perceptible influence on the global water cycle. The climate anomalies generated in the Polar Regions and its surrounding oceans may also influence the low latitudes including the Indian monsoon by modification of ocean and atmospheric dynamics.

The ice beneath the surface holds important clues to the past climate and its variability.

Due to global warming, Arctic Sea Ice is melting at a faster rate. This could affect the global radiative budget and also the global climate. Polar Regions are the least studied component of the earth system due to the paucity of observations, remoteness and extremely challenging field conditions. Among the large number questions identified, temporal changes in sea ice extent, and its influence on atmospheric and oceanic circulation is a prime area of a knowledge gap. We need to understand and document these changes and examine their possible effects on Indian climate using observations

and models.

The on-going scientific activities at Antarctic, Arctic, and the Himalaya will be therefore further strengthened. To investigate the dynamics of Himalayan glaciers, a research station Himansh’ was recently established, and a few more stations are to follow. In order to facilitate the Antarctic expeditions, a polar research vessel will be procured in another 2-3 years. A new research station is planned in Antarctica to replace the research station Maitri.

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