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Science

Cracking the monsoon 'source code' in India

Indian scientists are working on a new supercomputer and dynamic modeling to predict the movements of erratic monsoons weeks ahead of time. Local farmers need the data urgently.

Debashish Sarkar, a small-time farmer looks forlorn as he surveys his three acres if mustard and rice fields. Every now and then he looks up to the skies, hoping they will open up as without the much needed rains, he knows his crop will almost certainly fail.

Small land owners like Sarkar are totally dependent on the monsoons to sow their fields. Erratic monsoons can put their lives in jeopardy.

"Even this year," says Sarkar, "it looks as if there are gong to be no rains. Until July, the rains have been scarce and the villagers will suffer. All my fields are going to be destroyed… it's a major loss."

Extending short-term forecasts

To address the problem, India's Institute of Tropical Meteorology, based in the western city of Pune, is working on a multi-million dollar National Monsoon Mission.

Flood waters rise at the bank of a river in coastal Kerala Ort: Mumbai Datum: 2012 Copyright: Murali Krishnan

Flood waters rise at the bank of a river in coastal Kerala

The project's main aim is to forecast extreme weather events, such as drought and floods, active and dry spells of monsoon and to get information on how rainfall is distributed across the country.

"The farming community needs extended medium range forecasts - that's a range of 7 days to one month," says Dr M. Rajeevan, project chief and advisor to India's Ministry of Earth Sciences. "We expect the monsoon mission will do a better job."

The importance of the five-year Monsoon Mission has been highlighted by this year's irregular and below-average rains.

In early August, meteorologists confirmed - what millions of livestock farmers around the country had suspected for weeks - that India faces a period of drought.

Farmers high and dry

P.K. Basu, a former Indian Agriculture Secretary, says the country is heavily dependent on the unpredictable annual monsoon.

Residents in Delhi braving a downpour

Residents in Delhi brave a late downpour while parts of neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh states are monsoon deficient

It brings about 75 percent of the rainfall that the country needs to irrigate crops and fill its reservoirs.

Although agriculture accounts for just 14 percent of economic output, a successful monsoon can be life-changing for 600 million people in India - half of the population - who depend on farming for their livelihoods.

"I think the mission is critical - any improvement in the forecasting and prediction of monsoons would be of great help in stabilizing food production in the country," Basu told DW.

But forecasting the monsoon is also a tricky mission as the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has discovered time and again.

In recent years, the IMD has failed to forecast drought on four occasions - 1987, 2002, 2004 and 2009.

Each time, it predicted normal or near-normal rainfall.

Dynamic modeling

The new mission has started using a dynamic model of prediction, which was developed by the US-based National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

People wade through knee-deep water in Mumbai

People wade through knee-deep water in Mumbai

It involves using supercomputers to compare land and sea surface temperature data, wind speeds and air pressure from the past 50 years to predict the monsoons.

Up until now, the IMD used a statistical model.

S. C. Bhan, the IMD's deputy director general, says statistical analysis remains accurate for long-range forecasts, but the new model will benefit the country's agricultural class in the short-to-medium term.

"Farmers will be able to make use of this information to plan their different crops," says Bhan. "They will be able to take tactical decisions about when to irrigate, what fertilizers to use, and this will help bring down the cost of cultivation."

The $75 million research project is being given major priority by the Indian government. In the past, accuracy of weather forecasts has gone horribly wrong. Whether this large financial and human resources Mission will be a boon to the agricultural class is a million dollar question.

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