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The storm chaser

In June 1996, Pradeep John’s life was altered by the weather. Chennai recorded about 700 mm of rainfall over three continuous days that year; roads were flooded, electricity was cut off and people were marooned at home. The city came to a standstill. Then 14 years old, Pradeep was not allowed to leave home. So, instead, he took to standing on his balcony and watching the rain. He stayed there for 36 hours straight, engrossed in the droplets that splashed into ever-expanding puddles, to determine, he explains, the intensity of the downpour. “It was so relaxing and beautiful. That’s the effect rain has on me,” says the 33-year-old.

Since then, Pradeep has been meticulously recording rainfall. In 2010, he started blogging about the daily rain in different states — he’s measured precipitation in places like Agumbe, Hulikal, Cherrapunji, Kuttiady, Chinnakallar, Talakaveri and more. In fact, the details and dates of key weather events in the country are committed to his memory. “Many people ask me why I do this; it’s a taxing and time-consuming hobby, but it’s also my passion.” Around the same time, he also began contributing to many famous weather blogs — Indian Weather Man, Vagaries of the Weather and Kea Weather. Through these, he met many weather enthusiasts and learnt more about the subject.  

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An Orkut loyalist, he moved to Facebook only in 2012, to update weather reports on his page, Tamilnaduweatherman. “Before this monsoon, my page had less than 1,000 likes. Things changed in November because people have been so desperate for information on the rains.” Today, Pradeep’s page has nearly 64,000 likes, with some of his recent posts reaching close to two lakh people. His inbox is flooded: people ask him if they should vacate their homes, concerned parents consult him before scheduling weddings and worried wives wonder if their husbands can venture out to work.

Recently, Pradeep has had a few sleepless weeks. He has been awake on most days, studying weather patterns to forecast rain and alert the city about impending downpours. “I don’t say anything technical; I realised most people just want to know for how long it will rain and whether it will cause flooding.” His predictions, during Chennai’s turbulent monsoon, have stood out, even with constant predictions coming in from news channels and the city’s weather blogging community, which is close to 1,000-member strong. He’s also had to battle forecasts from astrologers, almanacs and many sourceless rumours. “They base their predictions on long-term models — like CFS (Climate Forecast System) — and say it’s going to rain for the next month, but that’s not accurate because these models are ever-evolving.” The MET department too constantly updates forecasts. “They don’t even have a Twitter handle or Facebook page. During the recent floods, most people were looking to the Internet for weather predictions. The bloggers offer that connect,” he explains. However, he concedes that he didn’t expect the kind of following he now has online. He’s also moved by the faith that people have in his forecasts. The responsibility now, he says, is immense.

After the deluge last week, BBC Weather issued another flood warning. People, obviously, panicked: some packed their bags, some left their homes, and many helplessly feared for their lives and belongings. Pradeep, at that time, remained calm. BBC was wrong, he said, which, the dry days that followed, eventually proved right. “The guy who predicted the weather for BBC is just another individual like me — what we see, they also see. They should have waited before they made that prediction; they couldn’t have known how it would psychologically affect people here. But the weather bloggers here were sure there would be no more downpours.” Basic knowledge about local weather conditions, he adds, also helps.

Pradeep, despite his interest in the weather, and his flair for Geography, pursued a degree in computer science engineering at his parents’ insistence. His understanding of the stock market directed him towards an MBA in finance from University of Madras. His job as the deputy manager at TNUIFSL (Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Limited) has him procuring and directing consultants who plan bridges, rivers, lakes, etc — this understanding of urban infrastructure helped him, he says, in alerting people during the previous floods. His heart, however, he confesses, has forever been in weather. So why not work with the weather department? “I don’t have the degree for that. Besides, I won’t have the freedom to express my views if I had a job in weather.”

The weather, he reveals, is the first thing he checks when he wakes up, and the last thing he updates before he hits the bed every day. His eyes light up when he talks about cyclones. He says he doesn’t sleep if there’s one lurking around the Bay of Bengal — he’s usually wide awake till the wee hours tracking its behaviour. When cyclone Laila hit Chennai in 2010, he took two days off, he says, just to watch the weather and blog about it. At one point, he confesses, he used to be late for work almost every day, because he was addicted to compiling information on the rains. He can’t do that anymore, because, a father now, he needs to drop his child at school every morning. “If my wife shouts at me for being too obsessed with the rains, I’ll close my laptop and do something else till she sleeps. Then I go back to blogging,” grins the celebrity weather blogger. “Celebrity? Oh no, I’m just a regular guy who loves to watch cyclones,” says the Tamilnaduweatherman.


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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 3:26:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-storm-chaser/article7976515.ece

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