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Sunday, September 30, 2001

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Dwelling into the mystery of the earth

Last Tuesday's tremor jolted the city and brought generations of residents face-to-face with the reality of an earthquake. The tremors sent waves of anxiety and made everyone curious about that most sudden of all disasters - quakes. The Deputy Director General of Meteorology, Mr A.K. Bhatnagar, was at the helm of the team handling the flood of calls and helping people make sense of it all. ``One should not get panicky in times of disaster such as tremors'', Mr Bhatnagar tells T. Ramakrishnan, explaining what the state of the art is, on research in this difficult field.

THE CITY was agog with reports that some more quakes are on the way, an interesting fallout of the last week's tremor. Some persons even provide a ``forecast'', with specific details about the time and place of occurrence.

``Yesterday, a gentleman rang me up that we were in for a tremor. I could only tell him - be ready for it'', Mr Bhatnagar says in a lighter vein.

However, he also says that umpteen number of seismologists all over the world have been working on evolving models through which earthquakes become predictable. ``There are certain efforts going on to forecast them through unconventional methods. Even, on this score, none of the studies have become successful'', the Deputy Director General points out.

It is common knowledge that animals, particularly cattle, behave in a strange manner during such occasions. ``But, we have not been able to use this for our purpose''.

The crux of the problem in prediction of tremors is that the place and time of occurrence and magnitude of earthquakes should be known precisely in advance. ``If we do not know about one factor, no unconventional study will be of use''.

But, what is more important is that there should be a proper emergency response. ``This involves not just our department but a host of organisations, both under the control of the Central and State Governments''.

Fortunately, last week's earthquake had not caused much damage. But, in cases of devastating quakes, rescue operations, immediately after the events, will become crucial. To perform this task, there should be a thorough coordination. Of course, there is the question of which agency to provide command.

``I would suggest that in times of crisis, different agencies, instead of waiting for instructions, get to business immediately and carry out what they are supposed to do''.

Another point to be kept in mind is that for several years, earthquakes may not happen. So, there should be periodical drills so that the agencies concerned respond the way they should, even if there is a long time gap between one tremor and another, he emphasises.

A post-graduate in astronomy and astro-physics from the Centre of Advanced Studies in Astronomy at Osmania University, Mr Bhatnagar (51) joined the department in 1977. He became Director about 10 years later and headed the Positional Astronomy Centre, Kolkata, till he came to Chennai five years ago as the Deputy Director General of the Regional Meteorological Centre.

``As there is a lot of scope in our department for practical application of scientific knowledge that we acquire, we get immense intellectual fulfillment'', he says.

Though considered unfashionable, the Meteorology department is one of the visible agencies. ``Everyday, our products are carried in the media, irrespective of who is doing it''.

Besides, the element of public service involved in the department's day-to-day functioning provides them satisfaction. ``Be it the launch of a satellite or the conduct of a film shooting, we are consulted about the weather condition and people take our advice seriously''.

Mr Bhatnagar says with a sense of pride about the accomplishments of his department in the field of scientific research. ``In fact, we have done work in areas that have not been touched by the West. For example, on tropical meteorology, our works have been found valuable by experts in Western countries''.

As regards analysis of tremors, the IMD has been fine- tuning its functions continuously and after the 1993 Latur Earthquake, the department introduced the global seismological network. Around 30 additional seismological stations will be established with a special emphasis on peninsular parts of the country and they are going to be managed by different institutions.

With technological advancements that are taking place at a rapid pace, Mr Bhatnagar is hopeful that a day may come in future when earthquakes can be predicted, with use of supercomputing facilities and better models.


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