All eyes are on the Met Centre as it tracks the monsoon to determine when it will reach the shores of India, writes Saraswathy Nagarajan
As summer peaks, most parts of the Indian sub-continent become a parched, thirsty mass. But when the heat and the dust overwhelm India, far away in the Indian Ocean, somewhere near Madagascar, on the small islands called Mascarene, the Indian monsoon wind takes shape due to a high pressure area (called Mascarene High by meteorologists). Dramatic changes, more than 3,000 km away, in the direction of the wind, pressure and humidity cause the capricious Monsoon wind to begin its long and ancient journey towards Kerala, India.
Bounty of life
Since time immemorial, this journey has been anxiously watched and monitored by rain watchers who tracked the wind for trade and commerce and for the bounty of life-giving rain it brought to a large swathe of the subcontinent. Sometime around 1875, it became official as the authorities stepped in to track the wind scientifically. Weather telegrams gave way to sophisticated computer-generated models and satellite images of the monsoon.
And for many years now, rain watchers in a modest multi-storeyed building situated on a picturesque hillock, the highest point in the capital city, are the ones who chase the monsoon as it travels thousands of kilometres to arrive dramatically on the Western coast. Bristling with all kinds of meteorological equipment, The Meteorological Centre in the capital city (which functions under the India Meteorological Department) is the nerve centre that informs a thirsty country when the all-important monsoon is likely to reach India. An arrival that can make or mar the fortunes of millions in India.
“We monitor the progress of the Monsoon from May 10 onwards when there is a perceptible shift in humidity, temperature and wind conditions. Light showers precede the arrival of the monsoon,” says K. Santosh, director of the Meteorological Department in Kerala.
His office, which incidentally never sleeps, monitors the data every 13 hours and this is sent to the headquarters of the Met department in Pune from where the weather reports are disseminated to the media, agriculture departments and so on.
His eyes light up when he says that the vantage position of the building, next to the heritage observatory founded by Swati Tirunal in 1836, gives them a clear view of the sea, which also undergoes changes prior to the monsoon.
“There is a change in the colour, smell and look of the sea. There is turbulence and the water turns choppy. We can see the rain advance from the hill. For days before the onset of the Monsoon, heavy dark cumulonimbus clouds gather on the horizon. They can stretch up to 14 km to the troposphere,” he describes.
Quoting figures and statistical data, Santosh says the Met department is happiest when there is a normal monsoon. “Then every one is happy. Otherwise, many of our economic targets may go awry,” he explains, as calls interrupt the interview. Phone calls that only want to know when the monsoon is officially expected arrive. “If there is a deficit in the rainfall, then the Met Dept. is flooded with angry calls asking us why we failed to predict it….” says Santosh who has been a rain tracker since his student days in the Agricultural University in Thrissur.
Confirming fears that the there has been a decline in the amount of rainfall over the years, Santosh says that although it would be hasty to blame it on global warming, there is tangible evidence that Kerala has been receiving less of rainfall over the years from the Southwest monsoon.
It is believed that it was the monsoon wind that brought the trading vessels of Rome to the ancient port of Muziris (Kodungallor). Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (written in the first century AD) and Pliny the Elder credit Greek navigator Hippalus with discovering the direct route from the Red Sea to India over the Indian Ocean by following the direction of the monsoon winds. The Arabs and Portuguese also seemed to have taken advantage of the monsoon wind by reaching the Western coast before the Southwest monsoon and returning only after the beginning of the Northeast monsoon. Incidentally, Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word ‘Mawsin' (season).