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Measuring rain in column inches: A reporter’s diary

Vinson Kurian | Updated on July 04, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

IMAGE COURTESY: ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

Business Line’s in-house weather writer chronicles the many ways in which the monsoon makes news

* In a country of India’s size and population, the weather is much more than just a social icebreaker

* The weather column began to engage with readers not just from within the country but also abroad

* Indian weather TV is light years away from its Western counterparts in terms of visual appeal

When cyclone Nisarga was pummelling Mumbai on June 3, dramatic footage emerged of a Hindi TV reporter tossed around by surging winds in the middle of his live feed. Before anyone could laud his professional dedication or worry for his safety, online trolls loudly booed him for “faking it” by pointing out that another person in the frame appeared completely oblivious to the “raging storm”. Many also pulled out a two-year-old clip from Florida of yet another weather correspondent caught in the act of “struggling during Hurricane Florence”.

Can you really blame the Mumbai reporter for trying to jazz things up a bit for a country where weather reports have for decades meant the dull and monotonous delivery of meteorological information on the public service All India Radio and Doordarshan TV channel?

The English are known to use the weather as a safe — even if a tad dull — conversation starter. But in a tropical country of India’s size and population, with its near-total dependence on the annual monsoons for very life, the weather is much more than just a social icebreaker. In fact, discussions on the annual monsoons — more a climatic than weather event — engage not just the government, academics, scientists and researchers but also the uninitiated, as I have inferred in over 20 years of writing a daily weather column in The Hindu Business Line (BL).

Alongside the experts, thousands of ordinary Indians today enthusiastically track the progress of the monsoons, which have of late become predictably unpredictable; of equal interest are the associated weather events, including a series of calamitous ones in recent times. Jargon — such as rudimentary cyclonic circulations and low-pressure areas — trips off their tongues easily, and they keenly follow phenomena such as depressions and cyclones, lightning and thunder, floods, landslides and disaster relief.

This, in turn, has forced weather chroniclers — whether in print, TV or web — to up their game. They track developments from halfway around the world, discuss with experts the implications for the local weather, and break the information into nickels and dimes for their readers/ followers. Not many are formally trained; most, including yours truly, have ventured out of passion, earning spurs over a period of time.

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I was initiated into weather reporting by K Venugopal, the founder-editor of BL and a keen weather enthusiast, who readily reserved for it a generous amount of prime column space at a time when few others even thought of it.

In the early 2000s, he had chanced on an odd copy on regional (Kerala) weather and asked me to expand the scope and coverage. I had no formal training in science, least of all meteorology. But, fortunately, I got linked to Akhilesh Gupta, among the best operational forecasters back then, through my brother, who was a secretary to the then Union science and technology minister.

From Thiruvananthapuram, I would call up Gupta in Delhi and discuss the day’s weather for at least 30 minutes every evening and analyse it. In his absence, KJ Ramesh, a future director-general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), stepped in. From writing daily weather reports based on information available locally, I spread the canvas wider to get perspectives from beyond the borders, to compare and contrast. This continued for over two years until, in 2005, they moved to other postings. I’ve been on my own since then, aided along by Laxman Singh Rathore and Air Vice-Marshall Ajit Tyagi, both former heads of IMD. Another major influence has been the Kochi-based monsoon researcher and scientist PV Joseph.

All of them familiarised me with the nuances of tracking weather to be able to generate copies every single day — there was no template available for referenceand nudged me to valuable weather and climate resources during the early days of the Internet. This opened vast opportunities to learn and assimilate, which I continue to do to this day, from sources straddling the Americas, Europe and Asia across academic institutions, research communities and bloggers. This helped me infuse my copies with fresh insights such as the science behind the birth, active life and death of storms/cyclones and their impact on the monsoon.

My column gradually began to engage with readers not just from within the country but also abroad. They include airline pilots, farmers, industrialists and stock/commodity investors, among others, who would use the phone or write emails to connect, or, as is the current fad, tweet their response. The column also took its author to prestigious forums both within the country and abroad to address sessions on weather communication.

 

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Weather, as a beat, still has few takers in the mainstream print media. In the electronic media, AIR News carries important weather updates through the day while DD features them in morning and evening news bulletins. DD was also an early mover with a dedicated Kisan channel for the farming community that dispenses comprehensive daily weather updates in three half-hour segments and four five-minute segments. The regional units broadcast the weather bulletins in the respective regional languages. These are currently also available online on the YouTube platforms of DD and AIR.

To those who complain that these reports lack variety or even vim, for that matter, experts point out that unlike in the lower tropics (away from the Equator), the weather here is less dynamic and lacks variety. We have the long-duration and the regionally relevant but compartmentalised monsoons, comparatively shorter winter and hot to very hot summer seasons, all of which reduces the scope for drama, or even the dazzling computer visualisations that characterise weather bulletins in other regions. So TV channels in India, both public and private, are happy reeling out the standard jargon with satellite imageries playing in the background. Many have live feeds from reporters on the ground interacting with the anchor but no trained meteorologist deconstructing the weather for them.

In the West, VR and AR (virtual/augmented reality) have added new dimensions to weather presentations. The use of photo-realistic 3D virtual studio further help create immersive content and storytelling styles for the weather reports. There the meteorologist-presenters are celebrities in their own right.

Yes, Indian weather TV is light years away from its Western counterparts in terms of visual appeal; nor can it hope to go as deep into the detailing as print media can, at least for the time being. But, as the wag says, writing on weather can be much harder than forecasting it.

Chennai’s weather thalaivas

A buzz in the South China Sea 5,000 km away is enough to trigger sleepless nights for Chennai’s famed weather bloggers. Chennai, across the adjacent Bay of Bengal, happens to be almost in line of sight, heightening expectations of rain for the parched city. “More often than not, the incoming ‘system’ strays and skips Chennai. But that has not deterred us from pursuing the job on hand,” says K Ehsan Ahmed, founder of Kea Blog and a pioneer in the eyes of the city’s weather blogger community.

K Ehsan Ahmed founded Kea Blog, which boasts 250 active bloggers and 1,000-plus followers

 

The weather news, views and updates put out by them are closely followed by commuters, business houses, techies, friends and families, among others; they use it to plan their day, schedule events and sometimes even save lives, as happened during the 2015 Chennai floods and 2018 Kerala floods.

Kea Blog, which boasts 250 active bloggers and 1,000-plus followers, first came to prominence during the Chennai floods. The blog served as a trigger for many others who pitched in with updates on the flood and coordinated help for those affected.

Ahmed, who says he was interested in following extreme weather events since college days,first launched his site, Kea Weather Station, in 2004 but lost interest midway before restarting it in 2006-07. He would post random weather info, but says he had no idea if anyone actually visited it. “A few months later, I wanted to give out current weather information. So I created a Wordpress (I had no idea what it was!) account and linked it to my weather page. That’s when Kea Blog started.”

The group is a melting pot of people of all ages, temperaments and from all walks of life, he says. It is a vicarious pleasure for them to see their city being drenched by humongous rain, he jokes before adding, on a serious note, that the community is today knowledgeable about the science behind the weather.

Over the years, the bloggers regularly posted basic weather information about their neighbourhood and discussed major events elsewhere. Today the blog is a beehive of activity 24x7.

“We have been ranked in the top 30 weather blogs in the world for the past three years... we get lots of new bloggers during our peak NEM (north-east monsoon) season, the main rain season in Tamil Nadu.”

Their coverage of the hugely destructive cyclone Vardah in 2016 cemented their standing as a valuable resource for Tamil Nadu weather tracking.

Pradeep John, aka Tamil Nadu Weatherman, is a household name with more than seven lakh followers   -  R RAVINDRAN

 

Blogger Pradeep John, aka Tamil Nadu Weatherman, is a household name in the state. He has more than seven lakh followers and many recall with awe his “accurate predictions during the 2015 Chennai floods”.

K Srikanth runs the ChennaiRains blog, with more than a lakh followers

K Srikanth (ChennaiRains blog, with more than a lakh followers) and Thomas Prasad V, a data scientist and keen weather

Thomas Prasad ,V, data scientist and weather enthusiast, founded WeatherBasics WhatsApp group

enthusiast who founded the WeatherBasics WhatsApp group, agree that it was during the 2015 floods that the city’s weather blogger community came into its own. “So much so, any story on Chennai weather now features our bloggers. We also see that the mainstream media is more indulgent [of us] as extreme events and water scarcity have taken centre stage in Chennai,” says Ahmed.

Srikanth muses that for him, as someone who grew up in a village, the search for answers to “when will it rain?” slowly evolved to “how does it rain?”. The idea was to be a link between the IMD and the layperson, he says, and recalls how some families wanted to know if they could go ahead with wedding plans during the 2015 Chennai floods.

“We also instilled confidence in a mom stranded alone at home with her young kid to stay back since the rising waters around her would recede thanks to an expected let-up in rain fury,” he says.

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Published on July 03, 2020
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