The Inside Story of the India Meteorological Department’s Success in Predicting Extreme Weather

MRUTYUNJAY MOHAPATRA WAS six when his father came running into the house, yelling at the top of his voice, “The storm is coming!” They were residents of a village not far from Dhamra in Bhadrak district, Odisha and, 50 years later, he still remembers that morning as though it were yesterday. His father’s warning saved more than 300 people who took shelter on the first floor of his home, including the family, from the devastating 1971 tropical cyclone that killed more than 10,000 people in the subcontinent.

Now director general of meteorology, India Meteorological Department (IMD), Mohapatra speaks to Open about the accuracy of cyclone warning that has come a long way since then, from a patriarch’s shouts to state-of-the-art forecasts weeks in advance thanks to the meticulous efforts of scientists and policymakers to save lives and property. In between, he takes breaks from the advances IMD has made to talk about the problem at hand: Cyclone Yaas. He discloses details about landfall, and the exact location of the area to suffer maximum damage from the cyclone. IMD is the country’s principal agency for meteorological observations, seismology and weather forecasts.

I ask him about the accuracy of IMD’s forecasts on Cyclone Yaas, which ripped through multiple eastern states on May 26th. “If you ask me how good we were in predicting the genesis of this cyclone, we had done it two weeks in advance. We kept upgrading our reports and even indicated that the cyclone was moving to north Odisha and then the Bengal coast. And finally came the landfall (where the cyclone hits the shore) and it came out right (between Balasore and Dhamra),” he points out with a sense of pride. He adds that the team had overestimated the intensity of the cyclone at “155-165-185km/hour, but the actual speed was some 25km/hour less at 132-140-155km/hour”.

While his home-state Odisha has historically borne the brunt of cyclones and other natural calamities, he is glad that IMD’s forecasts as well as people’s participation at the grassroots level have helped minimise loss of lives in the eastern Indian region although reducing loss of property remains a far cry.

IMD, which he joined in 1992, began to look at cyclone forecasting seriously only after what he describes as the “scientific failure” of 1999. Mohapatra was IMD’s pointperson at the Bhubaneswar office to handle communication and spread awareness about the characteristics of the super cyclone in 1999, which had a wind speed of more than 260 kmph. As it ripped through the state, the wave on the shore rose six metres and the inundation was 35 km. Communication lines broke down within hours after the cyclone hit. The fatalities, according to IMD, touched close to 10,000, but many other non-governmental agencies put the figure at upwards of 30,000.

“Naturally, after that there was a hue and cry. The Government set up the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project. Along with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which is the apex body for disaster management in India and is headed by the prime minister, IMD was asked to take part in the project. Our initiative there was to improve early warning,” recalls Mohapatra.

Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General of Meteorology at the India Meteorological Department, New Delhi

With improvements in technology and training, IMD began to get more predictions right about cyclones. The most memorable moment for Mohapatra occurred in 2013 when Cyclone Phailin hit three eastern states. Back then, he was the head of the cyclone forecast division at IMD at its Lodhi Road office in New Delhi. IMD’s estimate reports were absolutely spot-on. Besides, by then, IMD had managed to reduce error in spotting the exact area a cyclone would hit by 35 km compared with 1999. IMD had also got its forecasts about Cyclone Mahasen right the same year. It was a relatively weak tropical storm that wreaked havoc in southern and Southeastern Asia.

IMD’s gains did not happen overnight.

In 2006, the Ministry of Earth Sciences came into existence and IMD was made part of it. It was decided soon that the weather department had to be modernised to bring down the toll. As a result, IMD decided not to take part in the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project but to pursue its modernisation drive independently.

In 2007, Mohapatra was transferred from Bhubaneswar in Odisha to Delhi where he took over as head of the cyclone warning division. “I was asked by the then secretary (Ministry of Earth Sciences) to write the vision document, outlining the strategy for cyclone warning. I was the author of a report which indicated how we would improve our cyclone forecasting ability by 20 per cent by 2015 and 40 per cent by 2020,” he adds, emphasising that “yes, we did meet the targets.” The man from Odisha soon became the project director for both weather forecasting and cyclone warning.

I was the author of a report which indicated how we would improve our cyclone forecasting ability by 20 per cent by 2015 and 40 per cent by 2020. Yes, we did meet the targets, says Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General, IMD

There was a collective endeavour on the part of other organisations that came within the ministry’s fold to help IMD. “There were other project directors to help us, including project directors for instruments and communication,” says Mohapatra. The logic was simple: IMD needed upgraded numerical systems to predict the characteristics of a cyclone and communication systems to disseminate information to prevent or minimise losses. The other organisations that chipped in with their experience were the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM); Noida-based National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting; and Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS).

MOHAPATRA TALKS ABOUT WHAT he describes as “the forecast demonstration” project of IMD. “It envisaged that we should utilise and improve our forecast using whatever tools and technology we have,” he says, without elaborating. But he links that effort to the successes of 2013 and later in ensuring greater accuracy than ever before in IMD forecasts, especially of cyclones.

As regards his home-state, he is delighted that meeting the challenges of a cyclone has become a people’s movement there. “Odisha is invariably well-prepared in minimising the loss of lives since 1999. They have learnt from many disasters. Almost every year, they suffer from floods, cyclones, drought, heat waves (such as the one in 1998 in which more than 2,000 people perished). I always say Odisha is the gateway of India for disaster. It is often bombarded with various types of ecological damage,” says the chief of IMD, which has been, meanwhile, giving out statements such as these to news agencies: “The landfall process for the ‘very severe cyclonic storm’ began around 9 am on Wednesday (May 26) and is expected to continue for three hours. Yaas, which is crossing between Dhamra and Balasore in Odisha, is bringing in wind speeds of about 130-140 kmph.” Another: “Cyclone Yaas is crossing the Odisha border, south of Balasore. It’ll reach Jharkhand tomorrow (May 27) morning. It caused heavy to extremely heavy rain in Odisha in the past 24 hours. North Odisha and coastal Odisha expected to receive heavy to extremely heavy rain today (May 26).” Most of these statements were attributed to Mohapatra.

Mohapatra gets down to talking about how the system works now, especially when a cyclone rips through states. “It is done in a very holistic manner. Nationally, we go for videoconferencing every day before it happens. All stakeholders, including IMD officers and state governments, are involved all through the longevity of the cyclone,” says Mohapatra, who had earlier worked with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at Chandipur, Odisha, before joining IMD.

A NASA satellite image shows Cyclone Yaas approaching India’s eastern coast, May 25 (Photo: AP)

A postgraduate in physics, Mohapatra wanted to pursue a PhD as soon as he finished his studies, but had to change his mind and help his father look after the family. He tried pursuing a PhD while he was at DRDO, but the plan fell through. Then he quit DRDO to teach physics at a college in Odisha. He looked for an opportunity to do his PhD from IIT Kharagpur but that didn’t come to fruition. And as the years went by, in 1999, the super cyclone happened. In the aftermath, UC Mahanty of IIT Delhi visited Bhubaneswar and, there, Mohapatra requested Mahanty to be his guide. The professor obliged. “And that is how I got to do my PhD finally,” laughs Mohapatra.

Mohapatra, who is widely respected for his skills with numbers, says that the next line of forecasting has to be more organised and data-based. “At present, cyclone warning is impact-based forecasting. We assess what will be the impact on different types of houses, different types of population, different types of crops, structures, animals, coastal population, and industries. We bring out 13 types of bulletins based on static data.”

We should have a dynamic system where all types of data can be superimposed for a common platform to provide information in a granular manner, says Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General, IMD

That is not enough, he asserts. Of course, IMD and collaborating agencies have in place satellite-based data and those from radars, ships, weather buoys and scatterometers to supply data. But then impact will be different in different places even with similar speeds of cyclones. “We should instead have a dynamic system where all types of data—like dam data, hydrological data, meteorological data, geophysical data—can be superimposed to have a common platform so that you can provide information in a granular manner. For instance, if a cyclone is going to affect Balasore, we should be able to offer information on which part of Balasore will be inundated, which part of Balasore will see higher intensity of winds, etcetera,” notes Mohapatra.

Odisha is on his mind not only because it is his home-state, but because of the devastation the state has suffered historically. According to reports, it had been hit by super cyclones and very severe cyclonic storms since 1737. Other notable years were 1831 (resulting in 50,000 deaths), 1846, 1864, 1885, 1942, 1967, 1971 and 1999, besides those that followed in 2013 (Phailin), 2014 (Hudhud), 2018 (Titli), 2019 (Fani) and 2020 (Amphan). Most of the cyclones hit in the months of October and November.

Returning to the subject of cyclone forecast, the IMD chief reveals that NDMA is on a project to collate data from all sources possible and share it with relevant agencies. “The work will be completed very soon,” he notes, adding that it is going to be the backbone of what he calls a “dynamic risk information data”.

Another step that is being contemplated is crowd-sourcing. Not crowd-sourcing of money but information and the extent of damage in places where IMD people cannot reach

Another step that is being contemplated is crowd-sourcing, he says. It is not crowd-sourcing of money but information and the extent of damage in places where IMD people cannot reach. “That will help in risk assessment and mitigation,” he says. Making a user-friendly mobile app to reach out to people in the hinterland is another objective of IMD.

Since many people perish in the sea for want of information and warning at the right time, he says that IMD is collaborating with others to “develop information systems” to provide warnings to fishermen who are already out at sea for long-haul fishing.

NDMA has been lavish with praise for IMD for coming out with accurate warnings that help save lives. But Mohapatra, 56, insists that saving property also needs to be a top priority. That, of course, calls for far greater modernisation at IMD, including frequent air reconnaissance of the eyes of hurricanes.

It also calls for another kind of knowledge. The man at the helm talks not only with expertise in the tasks he handles but also the experience of having seen killer cyclones face-to-face since he was a child. As much as he loves computers, he swears by “human instinct”. After all, we know where he comes from.

First published in Open

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