Can’t rule out 2018-like excess rain… we are better prepared, says Neetha K Gopal

In a conversation with TNIE, IMD's first woman director for Kerala region speaks about the changing rainfall pattern in Kerala, the heatwave scenario and why she thinks another flood cannot be ruled out. Excerpts
Neetha K Gopal
Neetha K Gopal(Photo | B P Deepu, EPS)

What is IMD’s observation about this year’s monsoon?

That we have entered the eventuality of climate change is a fact. When we look at the long-term rainfall trends, there are several variabilities. Currently, we are going through a below-normal epoch. But we see a trend of the rain going normal or above normal after 2025. We are not seeing a reduction in rainfall in Kerala.

Have you noticed a change in the pattern of rain?

What we have observed is a change in the distribution, both in terms of time and space. That’s the major issue we have now. There was no rain and most districts had deficits from the beginning of the pre-monsoon period, starting from March. But it changed after May 15. The rain in the last 15 days of May resulted in districts getting excess or large excess rainfall for the entire pre-monsoon period. It was so heavy and intense that it compensated for the dry spell during the initial phase of the pre-monsoon season. The continuous and steady monsoon rain over a period is now falling in a few hours, and that is a problem.

What is a cloudburst? We hear a lot about it now…

Cloudburst is not a weather phenomenon. It is a symbolic term used to describe rain intensity. We use Red, Orange and Yellow warnings to give alerts on rainfall in the next 24 hours. We categorise the rain rate or the intensity of rain as light, moderate, intense, or very intense spells; the next category is called cloudburst. A 10cm rainfall spread through 24 hours will not cause much trouble. But if the same happens in two or three hours, it can cause damage, including waterlogging in low-lying areas.

So, do you mean to say cloudburst is not a new phenomenon?

No. Cloudburst is an old terminology. But now many use it to sensationalise. It is just an intense spell of rain, not a special weather phenomenon. I would like to clear some misconceptions about cloudbursts here (smiles).

Is there a change in the pattern of rainfall during both monsoons in Kerala? Lightning is now often seen during the southwest monsoon...

During the southwest monsoon, there is a stratified or sheet-like cloud — covering a large area — that brings in a drizzle or moderate rain. This used to be the typical structure of a monsoon cloud. Now we see vertical clouds that cause thunder and strong winds. Thunderstorm formation has become common, especially when the monsoon is in a weak phase, as is the case now. It is capable of causing some destruction.

Why is it that we get less rain at the beginning of the monsoon season? Is this a changing trend?

This June was a deficient month. We received 23% less rainfall. From our experience, it appears July is also likely to be less rainy. But the chances of getting more rain in August-September are high.

How do you predict the onset of the monsoon?

Monsoon declarations are based on specific criteria, including seasonal reversal of wind patterns, and not just rain. For the southwest monsoon, the reversal of the wind is crucial. Rain alone does not determine the onset. Rain is only the result of atmospheric conditions. We forecast the onset of monsoon based on the reversal of the wind.

Neetha K Gopal
Neetha K Gopal(Photo | B P Deepu, EPS)

Monsoon has a major impact on Kerala as it affects different sectors like health, tourism and other economic activities…

Yes. Monsoon tourism used to be prominent. Now it’s no longer an attractive season, or even a safe season. That’s because of the change in rainfall pattern.

How are cyclones named? Why are only female names used?

We come under the Asia-Pacific region (RA2), which is one of the six regions under the World Meteorological Organisation. Following criticism for the use of only female names in other parts of the world, the RA2 region uses gender-neutral names without social, economic, caste or creed bias. Every country gets a chance, as per the alphabetic order. Each country can submit a few names.

The 2018 flood was considered the flood of the century. But we had another flood the very next year…

The rains we get from May to July saturate the soil and reservoirs. After that, any amount of rain will cause more runoff. It increases water-levels in streams. There is already an association that La Nina conditions lead to more rain in August-September. We can hence anticipate excess rain. It takes less than five days for a monsoon depression to form and dissipate. If there are consecutive systems formed during the period, and it takes a southward track, as happened in 2018, there could be a bigger impact.

What are the chances of a recurrence?

We cannot completely rule out the possibility of a flood. I’m not talking about the catastrophic effect, but the fact that there could be excess rain. One advantage of the previous learning is that we are better prepared. There is readiness, awareness and alertness. We are well-equipped to deal with such eventualities. Before Ockhi, such preparedness was not there.

Considering the erratic nature of rain, how accurately can we predict a red alert condition?

Scientifically, our weather is highly unpredictable because we are located in the tropical region near the equator. Area-specific lead time on a short scale is very low. The predictability of high-impact weather systems is a challenging phenomenon the world over.

How do you explain variations in the 24-hour forecast?

We issue a forecast for five days. The accuracy of Day 1 and Day 2 rainfall in the state has proven to be 80%. Sometimes, forecasts for a district may not happen correctly as weather events aren’t confined to district boundaries. So, if a red alert is issued to Kozhikode, the most damaging part would sometimes occur in nearby Malappuram.

Is there scope for improvement?

IMD is as capable as any meteorological organisation in the world. Predictability is lowest in tropical regions. High-impact localised weather is a challenge for all.

Sometimes, forecasts for fishermen go wrong. Why?

The forecast for fishermen is based on the wind and sea conditions. It is not unsteady, as in the land area. If fishermen are advised not to venture into the sea, there is a definite chance of problems there.

So, IMD has come a long way from the old style of forecast like “rain may or may not occur”...

Certainly (smiles).

How do we check the maximum temperature in a day?

We take readings of the maximum temperature at 5.30 pm. Normally, we experience the maximum temperature between 2.30 pm and 3 pm. But if it’s cloudy, the maximum temperature may occur afterwards. So, we take the day’s maximum temperature reading at 5.30 pm.

Why do people say Skymet and other private agencies provide more accurate information than IMD?

Are these claims based on verification reports? I cannot comment on Skymet. IMD’s verification reports are available in the public domain and anyone can verify.

Kerala has been facing extreme weather conditions for the past four or five years. Is this phenomenon peculiar to Kerala or the same the world over?

It’s happening all over the world, not just in Kerala. Almost all countries were affected by the heatwave, followed immediately by floods.

But its impacts are high in Kerala…

Yes. One peculiarity of Kerala is that we have hills, midlands and coasts, all in a narrow belt. By the time we become aware of an impending event, it is already upon us. The response-time is that short. Population density is another factor. Even hills are occupied — either homes or farmland. The impact is high in Kerala because of the state’s peculiarities.

Some blame plantations for the rise in landslides in Kerala...

I don’t have a clear answer to that. But it has been observed that mining, quarrying or use of heavy-duty equipment causes unrest in the hills, where the earth is not stable. Not plantation, but human interference could be a reason.

Are extreme weather conditions increasing?

That’s what we have been seeing. There is a natural cycle... human interference adds to it. Global warming has been observed. Likewise, floods can happen. Analyses show that extreme climatic events are likely to go up.

There are people who still believe that climate change is a hoax…

IMD has never stated so. Instead, our official statements have accepted it as a reality. We cannot now say whether it is in a transient stage, or whether the situation would return to as before.

Is global warming the primary reason for climate change?

No, there are natural cycles. We have identified cycles of hundreds to thousands of years. Haven’t you heard about the ice ages and the interglacial period? That was part of a natural cycle. The elliptical orbit of earth may change to circular in a few thousand years. Basically, the climate system is driven by solar energy. Variations in it, coupled with post-industrial revolution human interference and greenhouse gas emissions, have made it warmer at a faster rate. We are witnessing the result of natural reasons plus human interference. Hence, the Paris Agreement set a target to cut down emissions by 2030.

There has been a global decision to reduce emissions. How far is this desirable, since it is a burden on developing countries?

A safe and secure life is the right of all citizens. It isn’t the sole responsibility of the government. People too should cooperate, by adopting lifestyles that can reduce emissions. At the industrial level, the use of fossil fuels can be reduced. People can use energy-efficient equipment at home. The cost of these efforts would be lower than the losses due to climate change and subsequent disasters.

How vulnerable is Kerala to earthquakes?

Kerala falls under Category-3, indicating a moderate level of risk. The state falls under Category-3 because of construction patterns and geological peculiarities. But historically we haven’t faced any devastating earthquakes.

What about heatwaves and warm-night declaration patterns?

Trend analysis indicates that Kerala is experiencing a warming trend. Temperatures are on the rise and are expected to remain at uncomfortable levels in the future.

Is there a difference in predicted temperatures and those felt in urban areas?

The difference between predicted temperatures and those felt in urban areas is linked to land-use and changes in construction styles.

Palakkad is one place where maximum temperatures are recorded. Are there any specific reasons for that?

The Palakkad Gap has an effect. A protective barrier is not present there, like in other places. Dry wind from Tamil Nadu reaches Palakkad. All these factors might have an impact.

What’s your take on marine climate and rising temperatures in oceans?

For natural reasons, we had a warmer Arabian Sea in 2018-19. This triggers cyclonic formation and marine life is significantly affected. The efficiency of vessel operations too are affected because of temperature fluctuations.

Did Ockhi change everything?

Cyclone Ockhi shattered the general feeling that tropical cyclones don’t originate and rapidly intensify close to the equatorial regions. Such surprises can occur in the future. But it increased public awareness and consciousness regarding alerts and warnings. The event served as a significant learning experience for all of us.

Coastal erosion is a major issue faced by Kerala. Are there any specific reasons for this?

It’s true that coastal erosion is increasing, due to numerous interventions. Some studies have shown that even breakwater (pulimuttu) is unscientific. Some countries, at least, have started avoiding breakwater. It is difficult to pinpoint one reason alone. Most of these are issues faced across the globe. Global warming has led to rising sea-levels. Coastal regions, low-lying lands and islands face an additional threat. Even high-wave and rough-sea conditions can pose difficulties to island nations.

Some studies say Kochi will be submerged by 2050. There are many doomsday predictions nowadays…

I won’t comment on that. The Earth-system is complex. I don’t know on what parameters such predictions are made. We are a society that learns from our past experiences.

How effective is our disaster management system?

In Kerala, disaster management is implemented as a three-tier system. Local residents are the first respondents to any calamity. If there’s a warning, we tend to be more alert and take precautions. Since we have a monitoring, forecasting, dissemination and response mechanism, we are better prepared to deal with disasters. We cannot avoid severe weather events. But we can face them effectively.

You mentioned extreme weather scenarios becoming the norm. Is there any climatic condition in which Kerala stands out?

We are a rain-prone region. We will have heavy rains and floods. Another thing is the possibility of cyclone-formation over the Arabian sea.

Are you saying that heavy rains and floods are going to become a permanent phenomenon?

Not in that sense. Copious amounts of rain were received earlier too, but the duration of the spell used to be longer. Now it’s concentrated to a part of the day, leading to floods and landslides. The irregular nature could remain.

It was in 2004 that Kerala faced a tsunami for the first time. Could there be another?

Yes. Tsunamis happen because of geological reasons. The 2004 one was of a gigantic scale. Long ago, smaller tsunamis had occurred on the Goa and Gujarat coasts.

Western Ghats play a major role in the formation of Kerala’s climatic character. Will any change in the Ghats affect the state?

It acts like a physical barrier during monsoons, thus helping us get more rain.

After the 2018 flood, there were opinions that it wouldn’t have happened had the Gadgil committee report been implemented...

I won’t be able to comment on that. We cannot say that climate change in Kerala is only because of changes in the Western Ghats. We cannot establish such a one-to-one correlation.

It’s said that some birds and animals can sense climate change in advance. Similarly, it’s said that ants act, anticipating rain. Is this true?

We don’t know whether that’s a reason or an outcome. We don’t know whether they act after coming across a resultant effect or in anticipation of something. It’s like saying that early flowering of konna (golden shower tree) is associated with early rains. But early flowering could be due to pre-set climatic conditions too. Rains needn’t have arrived because konna flowered. I believe some birds or animals may be able to sense changes that have already occurred in the atmosphere. But I don’t believe their acts predict or anticipate the changes.

It’s said that some species have better sensory organs compared to humans…

Could be. Their senses are different. Their frequency is different and they may be able to sense it. I don’t know whether they sense the reason or the result.

What was the major challenge that you faced in your career?

I was on duty when Ockhi happened. It was a first-time experience. Such a low-latitude deep depression, that too a rapidly intensifying one, was never anticipated... we never thought Kerala would experience a cyclone.

TNIE team: Cithara Paul, Anil S, M S Vidyanandan, S Unnikrishnan, Shainu Mohan

B P Deepu (photos),

Pranav V P (video)

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