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“Our short-to-medium term forecasting capability is world-class”

TOMOJIT BASU | Updated on January 23, 2018

IMD chief Laxman Singh Rathore

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has improved its forecasting capabilities, evident y by the near-accurate landfall predictions the agency made during tropical cyclones such as ‘Phailin’ in October 2013 and ‘Hudhud’ a year later. While the early warnings could do little to prevent damage to property, it minimised the loss of life, a massive contrast from the experience of the Super Cyclone (05B) that struck the Odisha coast in 1999 and caused 10,000 fatalities. BusinessLine spoke to Laxman Singh Rathore, IMD’s Director General, about the agency’s role in predicting catastrophic weather events and challenges confronting the Met Department.

Critics have faulted the IMD for not having predicted a single drought accurately in the last 130 years.

I understand being critical, but this is not true. Which country can predict severe weather patterns four to six months hence? Does the US predict the severity of their winter six months before? Last year, people said rainfall would deficient by 60 per cent. I felt that was overestimated and we said there would be a 12 per cent shortfall. It turned out to be 13 per cent.

I feel when certain experts and agencies provide grim pictures too early there are negative intentions at play to affect the Indian economy through its stock and commodity markets which react immediately.

Are fairly consistent setbacks in June rainfall setting a pattern for the future? Do we need to push the Kharif crop cycle by a month or so?

We do not see a pattern for deficit June rainfall as yet. I believe that we need to respond to such a pattern only after making assessments with seasonal scale forecasts instead of just studying data for maybe two years and then expecting it to happen in the third year again. So no, I don’t think pushing the Kharif crop cycle is necessary.

Could you elucidate on your feat of correctly tracking down storms and their landfall?

Our predictive ability for landfalls has improved immensely as you saw for (tropical cyclones) Hudhud and Phailin. Early warning was issued for Nilofar (October 2014) as well. No other country right now can pinpoint exact or near-exact landfalls, they provide a window of about 300-400 km. We did it successfully for Vishakhapatnam and earlier in Gopalpur. I attribute it to better models, observations, capacity development and improved post-processing.

How do you assess short-to-medium range forecasting skills including nowcasting?

Our short-to-medium terms forecasting capabilities are world-class now and we have data to back up that claim. There has been considerable development on those fronts since we began really focusing on such operations about 5-6 years ago and nowcasting just 2 years earlier.

Do you see commercial demand for weather inputs across ranges from the public/private sector?

IMD can work in a consultative role at present for industry sectors. It’s not just a question of forecasting, the data must be interpreted correctly, impacts assessed and loss-gain functions understood and ultimately, usage of the data itself. That said, I believe the agency itself cannot put its feet into too many shoes. What we can do is provide inputs to someone developing applications to improve industry linkages since every sector is weather-sensitive with varying degrees of impact and wants to be more efficient and lower their costs.

Mining, for example, is affected by weather heavily since there are many stages, from transportation of raw material to processing of end-products.

Finally, how is IMD faring with respect to need for infrastructure capabilities/computing power?

Politicians are now convinced of IMD’s potential and the use of weather information in the development sphere. There are definitely additions required, mainly for oceanic and upper air observations and computing models. Radars also require upgrading. We have pitched for our infrastructure needs to the Centre and hope to see upgrades happening in an incremental manner.

Published on April 13, 2015

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