The sky people

The sky people

Climate change has made weather unpredictable. Its interpreters, official and private, are the new safety guides

In 2023, Asia faced a staggering 79 extreme weather events that caused over 2,000 deaths and affected nine million people. These alarming numbers from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) underscore the growing urgency for precise and localised weather forecasts. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) uses advanced technologies such as AI and Doppler radars to provide hyperlocal predictions.

Adding to weather power are independent weather forecasters operating separately from the IMD. But their work often complements the IMD’s efforts. They predict weather by using a variety of tools and techniques, including high-resolution regional climate models, statistical and dynamic weather prediction models, high-performance computing for hyperlocal predictions, and advanced weather models like GFS, ECMWF and CMC.

They also bank on online platforms such as Windy.com, the Global Flood Awareness System, satellite images, and Doppler radar data. They then choose a specific geographical area and time frame for their forecast or historical analysis, besides employing high and low-pressure systems to understand general patterns.

While using social media platforms (Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram) to circulate their forecasts, some independent forecasters are developing custom tools like mobile apps for live weather alerts, and low-cost weather stations to empower people affected by weather like fishermen and farmers to collect and analyse local data. By building custom platforms and engaging directly with their audience, they are growing their own community, which might be harder to achieve if they were part of a large institution. Their credibility stems from consistently accurate and timely forecasts that demonstrate real-world impact in real time.

Most of the analysis is done with the help of a laptop and weather readings from open websites, but some forecasters also put in their own savings—amounting to 20-30k—to buy analytical equipment like weather vanes, and even develop apps to disseminate information, like Kolkata-based Santosh Subramanian is doing. Then there are enthusiasts like Mumbai-based Ankur Puranik, who bought a weather station worth `1.5 lakh to measure rain, in order to have greater accuracy.

Their stories highlight the broader narrative of how indie forecasters are bridging the gap between official meteorological predictions and the real-time, localised needs of the population. Unlike the IMD, which provides updates at scheduled times and follows strict protocols to avoid causing public panic, independent local forecasters can make announcements whenever they like.

For instance, if there is a possibility of heavy rain leading to flooding, the IMD might issue a cautious warning which they may not be able to withdraw quickly enough if the situation changes. In contrast, an independent forecaster can promptly update the public via social media. This flexibility allows them to provide real-time alerts for sudden changes. Such quick response is possible because they can focus on smaller geographic areas, providing more detailed and timely information than IMD.

AJINKYA SAWANT
AJINKYA SAWANT

Storm Trooper

Rushikesh Vijay Agre, Pune, Maharashtra

Provided timely warning during the intense thunderstorms in Ghatkopar on May 13

Weather forecasters have two main enemies: cyclones or storms, and drought. Agre is a 22-year-old weather enthusiast who divides his time between Pune and Mumbai. The weather forecasting bug bit Agre in 2019, triggered by conflicting reports during an India-Pakistan cricket match on June 16 of that year. Confused by the inaccuracies, Agre delved into studying Indian monsoons and weather patterns. A law student at Government Law College, Pune, he initially honed his skills by observing meteorological data on platforms like Windy and Ventusky. His growing passion for accurate forecasting led him to pursue an online certification course from Harvard.

His timely warnings have proven critical, such as during the intense thunderstorms in Ghatkopar on May 13, when his alerts saved lives and earned media recognition. He primarily relies on the IMD GFS model for his forecasts, observing radars and providing alerts through X formerly Twitter. Climate change, he believes, is a huge contributing factor today. “Human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes, are causing a warming effect. This disrupts the natural balance of weather systems and impacts weather in several ways: average global temperatures are rising, leading to hotter summers and milder winters. There is an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall,” he says, adding that in this scenario, it is pretty challenging to get the forecast right.

Farmers’ Friend

Kirthiga Murugesan, Chennai, Tamil Nadu

Involved in the real-time flood forecasting project by IIT Madras

Kirthiga Murugesan gazes out of her window in Velachery, Chennai, watching dark clouds gather on the horizon. The sight reminds her of the millions of farmers across the country who also have their eyes on the sky; the monsoon rains are crucial for their crops’ survival. “My father is a farmer, and I have seen him suffer the vagaries of weather,” says the 35-year-old, who holds a PhD from IIT Madras. Behind her weather forecasting talent is a childhood interest in maths, problem-solving and coding. Subsequently, she got an undergraduate degree in agriculture informatics, leading to her specialising in weather forecasting for natural resource management at IIT Madras.

Women are significantly underrepresented in meteorology; a field where they face gender challenges. Murugesan, who started real-time forecasting in 2020, has emerged as a trailblazer, her contributions marked by the development of a high-resolution regional climate model at the hyperlocal level. This model, created in partnership with IIT Madras and C-DAC Pune as part of the National Supercomputing Mission, uses supercomputers for precise predictions. “This employs two ways to forecast weather—one is the statistical model based on available weather data. The second is dynamic modelling, a numerical weather prediction model that uses the laws of physics,” she explains.

Murugesan’s work at the World Resources Institute (WRI) as a senior programme associate allows her to combine her expertise with an inherited passion for agriculture. “Seasonal patterns are shifting, with earlier monsoons and delayed winters. Some regions experience heavier rainfall and flooding, while others suffer from prolonged droughts. Melting polar ice caps and glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, which can affect coastal weather patterns and increase the risk of storms,” she says, as she gets ready to share the next update on the COMK (Chennai Rains) group.

SATISH MALAVADE
SATISH MALAVADE

Course Corrector

Ankur Puranik, Mumbai, Maharashtra

Accurately predicted that Cyclone Remal would not affect Maharashtra and Gujarat and quelled panic

Ankur Puranik began weather forecasting after he became a Ham Radio enthusiast. This hobby, which involves providing emergency wireless communication during disasters like earthquakes and cyclones, exposed the 43-year-old Mumbaikar from Wadala East, to the critical need for accurate weather information. Despite holding an MBA in Entrepreneurship & Leadership and a degree in Electronics & Telecommunications Engineering, he taught himself meteorology. He attended a course at IIT Bombay to further his knowledge.

Today, Puranik is the founder of a WhatsApp group called ‘The Indian Weather People’, comprising over 200 weather enthusiasts, including Krishnanand Hosalikar—scientist ‘G’ and head of climate research and services, and surface instrument division, IMD. His mornings begin with analysing data to ensure he provides timely updates to over 40,000 people on WhatsApp, X and Instagram. He also holds a patent for his invention of a Rain Water Logging Detection, Measurement & Reporting system, which provides real-time information.

“The data collected by this system can also be stored and analysed by scientists and meteorologists to create a comprehensive flooding map of a city or district,” he says. No city has a flooding map. Puranik believes this is essential today, especially with climate change, when you cannot accurately predict the quantity of rainfall or the intensity of a cloudburst. One can gauge the state of the stormwater drains and understand whether more water-drawing pumps would be required in case of flooding. “It can act as an early warning system,” he says.

His automatic weather station, which he set up with a personal investment of Rs 1.5 lakh, helps the Railways record how much rainfall has occurred at a particular place. “If the rainfall in a particular area crosses 100 mm, the railway lines would be non-functional due to water-logging,” he says. He is also developing a low-cost weather station priced under `10k that can be beneficial to farmers and fishermen, and even help budding forecasters and climate change experts.

One of Puranik’s most notable contributions came when Cyclone Remal threatened the East Coast on May 26. Widespread panic ensued in Maharashtra and Gujarat due to a viral caution note. Puranik quickly reassured the public that the cyclone’s impact would be minimal in these regions.

Vinay Gupta
Vinay Gupta

Long and Short

Navdeep Dahiya, Gurugram, Haryana

Correctly predicted a severe cold wave in North India in January 2023

Navdeep Dahiya has dedicated his life to improving weather predictions to support India’s agricultural sector. Growing up in a farming family, Dahiya, like Kirthiga witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of unreliable weather forecasts. He was motivated to bridge the communication gap and provide reliable information to farmers. His curiosity about weather patterns began early. “I started to understand why it rains and why thunderstorms occur. Weather readings can vary significantly within the same region due to several factors. Diverse topography and manmade constructions, both, impact the climate along with industrial and vehicular emissions,” explains the 23-year-old. Dahiya’s self-education in meteorology was bolstered by a degree in Physics and online courses from Harvard.

In 2016, the young weatherman launched ‘Live Weather of India’ on Facebook. The platform grew quickly, now boasting over 44k followers on Facebook and 28k on YouTube. His updates provide invaluable weather information, especially to farmers. He shares data from the IMD and other reliable sources for accurate and actionable forecasts. “Data can be from ground observation, satellite, etc. Understanding climatological data and checking past patterns is crucial,” he notes. He leverages various weather models, updating them multiple times a day to generate precise predictions. Forecasts range from long-term predictions to short-term nowcasts.

One of Dahiya’s significant achievements was predicting a severe cold wave in North India in January 2023. Despite scepticism from senior meteorologists, his prediction proved accurate. “West Rajasthan had a temperature of minus 4.5 degrees, and Delhi recorded 1.6 degrees,” he recalls. He uses Facebook and YouTube to reach farmers, while X targets urban audiences.

The pros

Calling the Shots

Officials at the IMD and Skymet, who have trained to forecast weather, believe climate change is a big disruptor

Lone ranger

Mrutyanjay Mohapatra Director General, IMD

The roots of the career of Mrutyanjay Mohapatra, DG, IMD, lie in his memories as a six-year-old boy who witnessed the devastating cyclone in Odisha in 1971. “It left a mark on me,” says the official. The country has come a long way since, and IMD’s weather forecasts are getting more accurate by the day. Mohapatra attributes it to the technological developments in meteorology and telecommunication. “Satellites were available even 30 years ago, but we got cloud images once in three hours, only in Delhi, and the images weren’t easily recognisable.

Now they come in every half an hour with details such as wind speed, humidity etc.,” he says. Mohapatra’s career stands on a bedrock of accurate forecasts, but if he had to choose one, it would be predicting the intensity of the 2013 cyclone, Phailin. “International agencies predicted it to be a super cyclone and insisted that India was underestimating the situation. We had predicted that Phailin would have a sustained wind speed of 220 kmph. At the time we were under pressure to change our forecast, but we stuck to it, and were proven right at the end.” No wonder he is called the Cyclone Man of India.

BP Deepu
BP Deepu

Trailblazer

Neetha K Gopal, Head, Meteorological Centre, IMD Thiruvananthapuram

As a young girl, Geography fascinated Gopal. Naturally, she took to a career in Atmospheric Sciences, whose foundation is Geography. Today it’s been 25 years that she has been with the IMD, one of the few women weather scientists in the country. “It is true that there are only a few women forecasters. This is mainly because we work away from home. So, joining the IMD isn’t an attractive choice for most women.

To plug the cap, the WMO, as a policy matter, now promotes participation of women,” says the 53-year-old. In over two decades of her career, Gopal has seen the IMD’s computing systems evolve with modern techniques for data collection and communication. “Today we have better understanding of atmospheric conditions. Since the IMD is a WMO Regional Specialised Centre for Tropical Cyclones, it is capable in tropical cyclone monitoring and prediction. For last-mile connectivity, we use social media,” she adds.

Reminiscing about the Ockhi cyclone in 2017, which affected Kerala, she says, “At the time, many models were indicating formation of another cyclonic storm in Bay of Bengal. But we were unsure and so did not issue any such forecast. Ultimately, we were proved right and the cyclonic storm was not formed,” says Gopal, who believes the biggest challenge is forecasting localised high-impact weather events with good lead time.

Days Ahead

Santosh Subramanian, Kolkata, West Bengal

In 2020 Cyclone Amphan, the path projection was 92% accurate

Santosh Subramanian celebrated the 11th anniversary of his platform, Weather of Kolkata (WOK), this month. Over the years, WOK has become a trusted source in the region. The team consists of five members in Kolkata, with correspondents in Abu Dhabi and Hyderabad. They rely on data patterns spanning the past 200 years, linking them with current weather models to make accurate forecasts. “We predicted the intense heat wave patterns in Kolkata. We also predicted that spring would be the longest in 2024. This is also related to climate change. For instance, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan have experienced intense heat waves these last few years, with temperatures soaring above 45°C,” says the 30-year-old.

In 2020, during Cyclone Amphan, their path projection was 92 per cent accurate five days before landfall,

a breakthrough that garnered significant attention. Subramanian emphasises the importance of simplifying complex meteorological terminology for the layperson. By breaking down data, he makes weather information accessible to everyone. This approach has proven invaluable, especially for farmers who depend on accurate forecasts to time their crop rotations and for industries like tea plantations. Subramanian is currently developing a free app to offer live alerts. “The motto is to make the average Joe interested in the weather,” he says.

rajkumar
rajkumar

WindCatcher

Dhanaprakash, Erode, Tamil Nadu

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malaysia and Singapore monitor his forecasts

Dhanaprakash, better known as ‘Sanjay Weatherman’, is from Bhavani in Erode district, Tamil Nadu. This 23-year-old’s weather zest began in 2018, driven by a childhood fascination with data collection related to agriculture. Growing up in the delta region of Tamil Nadu, he was particularly intrigued by cyclones and their impact on the local environment. “In Tamil Nadu, we face the brunt of cyclones frequently. I wanted to learn how to predict these events and alert people,” he says. In 2019, he launched his YouTube channel, Sanjay Weatherman, which quickly gained traction among viewers across India and even in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malaysia and Singapore, since his forecasts are often for those regions, too.

Dhanaprakash’s approach to weather forecasting is largely self-taught. But he in on-spot: “Aside from harsh weather, climate change has already slowed agricultural growth over the last 50 years, especially in mid and low latitude regions like India and Southeast Asia—and this leads to a food security issues, too.” Utilising online resources like Windy.com and the Global Flood Awareness System, he compares rainfall data to make mostly accurate predictions. His dedication is evident in his daily routine: waking up at 3 am to research weather patterns until 7 am, followed by his regular job as a CFL coordinator at the Daan Foundation. “During monsoons, I am even more heavily involved with this work,” he adds.

P Ravikumar
P Ravikumar

Ever vigilant

Dr S Balachandran, Head, Regional Meteorological Centre, IMD Chennai

For the last 33 years, Balachandran has been forecasting storms and cyclones. “When I started out in 1992, IMD was not that popular. Being a Physics student, I was drawn to interpreting and calculating the mathematical data available. When I joined, I also underwent IMD’s own training programme,” says the 59-year-old.

Surface data is what he swears by. Also, down the years, IMD’s precision has gone up, thanks to evolving science and technology. Earlier an analogue system was in place, now IMD has numerical models that translate readings from mathematical equations. But, he maintains, there is still no perfect forecasting system. “Forecasting is a complex business. There are weather phenomena that last for a few seconds, and then there are some that go on for a year.

There are also weather phenomena that occur across different timespans at the same location,” he says, and is candid enough to admit that 80 per cent of the time forecasts are proved right, but there are times when the readings fail too. “It happens all over the world,” he says. The one thing he stresses that is most needed is constant knowledge update and keeping up with climate change.

“For example, the Chennai 2015 floods occurred due to 30 cm rain in 24 hours. Nowadays, some places get 20 cm rain in six hours,” he says, adding that his stint in Tamil Nadu is challenging as the state is prone to cyclones and the IMD needs to constantly monitor the same.

 S Eshwar
S Eshwar

Hit and Hit

Srikanth K Chennai, Tamil Nadu

In 2023, Srikanth issued a warning of severe floods hitting Chennai, 24 hours before the rains started

Srikanth K, popularly known as ‘Chennai Rains’, boasts a following of over 173k on X. His fascination with weather began not with a formal education in meteorology, but through routinely reading the weather columns in newspapers. Despite his background in Economics and publishing, Srikanth applied his analytical skills to understand weather patterns. His blog, Chennai Rains, quickly became a trusted source for weather updates.

His forecasting methodology is rigorous: it involves real-time tracking using satellite and radar images from the IMD and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Studying all the data requires waking up at 4 am and spending two hours on weather updates every day. “There are no ‘off’ days in this line,” he says, adding, “Localised atmospheric conditions, such as pressure systems and wind patterns, also contribute to variations in weather readings. Additionally, human activities like pollution and land use changes can affect local weather conditions. For instance, air pollution in cities like Delhi can trap heat and alter rainfall patterns.”

He is part of the state weather task force whose purview is early warning and disaster preparedness initiatives. “Disaster preparedness does not come with the flick of a switch. It requires constant vigilance and preparation,” says Srikanth, whose predictive capabilities were tested in December 2016 when Cyclonic Storm Vardah threatened the Indian coast.

While official predictions suggested the storm would hit Puducherry and some pointed to Andhra Pradesh, Srikanth predicted that the storm would strike Chennai. “I got a lot of flak for it,” he recalls. As Vardah approached, it formed over the southeast Bay of Bengal and crossed north of Tamil Nadu near Chennai on December 12, just as he had predicted. In 2023, when severe floods threatened Chennai, Srikanth issued a warning 24 hours before the rains began. Initially met with ridicule on social media, his forecast was vindicated when the rains started that night and continued for 24 hours.

All-Rounder

Mahesh Palawat, SkyMet Weather Services

Mahesh Palawat became the face of SkyMet Weather Services, India’s first private sector organisation to provide forecasts, post-pandemic. When Covid forced many staff members to leave the organisation, the 59-year-old meteorologist took on the responsibility of writing and presenting weather forecasts on SkyMet’s website and social media channels, in addition to his primary job of plotting atmospheric data. Palawat’s relationship with weather is that of sheer passion. He pursued a degree in Geography simply because he “wanted to know more about the world”. Then, he found himself as a meteorologist with the Indian Air Force, where he was also a boxer. In 2006, he joined SkyMet, where he is now the VP, Meteorology. Ask him why there is

a need for a private service when there is the IMD, and he says, “We offer location-and client-specific forecasts.” Their forecasts, he explains, are meant for the general public, but also for power and oil companies, and farmers, who reach out in order to take adequate precautions. Speaking about the evolution of technology in the field, Palawat cites several examples ranging from better satellite images to the advent of Doppler radar which helps in the detection of wind speeds and is vital in forecasting cyclones. He recalls how during his time in the Indian Air Force he used to plot data by hand. “Now there are tools that help us do that within minutes,” he says.

X
The New Indian Express
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