Civic Sense It used to be that residents were content with a general weather forecast for the following couple of days. After all, the weather in Chennai, as a popular joke goes, is either hot or hotter.

It used to be that residents were content with a general weather forecast for the following couple of days. After all, the weather in Chennai, as a popular joke goes, is either hot or hotter.

But today, with lifestyles changing, and plans being made and updated constantly, there is a growing demand for a frequent weather updates – residents now want predictions for the next hour, and for specific purposes. But how far has the Indian Meteorological department been able to match these demands?

In recent years, the department has undergone a sea change when it comes to weather observation and predication techniques, thanks to a modernisation project. Data from the Doppler weather radar and high profile weather models have made predictions on cyclone tracking close to accurate, as recently occurred with Cyclone Nilam.

However, a lot needs to be done in to ensure accurate forecasts that are relevant to each locality, and communicating the vast amounts of data generated on the weather to different user groups.

At present, the Regional Meteorological Centre here has to wait for its headquarters in New Delhi to approve even small additions to improve the weather prediction network.

For instance, the project to provide a network of 75 automatic rain gauges, which would measure rainfall and temperature across the State, was mooted in 2007. But half the areas chosen still do not have equipment, as the centre here is waiting for funds to be released by the headquarters.

Even simple operations like correcting errors or technical glitches that occur in uploading data from automatic rain gauges cannot be done by the regional centre here. Officials have to inform the co-ordinating centre in Pune, and wait for them to rectify the problem.

Another problem is delays. It takes months for any decision taken or project mooted at the national level to percolate to the Chennai region passing through various other regions across the country.

One step towards addressing this could be by delegating more financial powers to the regional centres. This would go a long way in bettering communication services – be it in the launching of weather forecasting packages through text messages or maintaining a 24-hour weather hotline.

The Chennai centre also suffers from a severe shortage of staff. Executing new schemes or observing weather conditions on a regular basis across several localities requires personnel, something the centre sorely lacks, as it has not recruited trained staff for almost 15 years now.

Of late, several private firms are emerging as competitors offering a platter of tailor-made solutions in terms of weather forecasts designed for different users. Government meteorological sectors like in Switzerland provide customised forecasting services for road maintenance and the energy and tourism sectors for a price. The department here too, could mull over such initiatives to improve dissemination of information and also generate revenue.

The impetus should now be to downscale its forecasting services and make predictions location-specific instead of at a regional level. The centre should also focus on installing local area weather radars to get data within a short radius. While it is essential to perfect weather models’ performance for accuracy, nowcasting — a forecast for an immediate three hours — must be improved to provide site-specific predictions.

An integrated approach is also needed to ensure research institutions that carry out research on the weather share data with the meteorological department.

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