India set to transition to hyperlocal extreme weather forecasting

The Department of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare have initiated the weather information network and data system (WINDS) to generate long-term, hyper-local weather data

February 10, 2024 09:00 pm | Updated February 11, 2024 11:49 am IST

Weather forecasting plays a pivotal role in the country’s functioning. Accurately predicting rain, cyclones, heatwaves and drought are critical to inform decision making on disaster management. In India the Indian Meteorology Department (IMD) is the principal government agency in all matters relating to meteorology and it specialises in the incredibly complex science of predicting weather patterns by observing, modelling and interpreting a multitude of variables.

However, in tropical countries like India, weather variability is inherently higher. IMD’s forecasts have improved vastly in the last few years as it has upgraded to technologies similar to the ones used by the U.S., the U.K. and Japan, which are known to produce accurate forecasts. Yet, there are still many days and geographies for which Indian forecasts go wrong, especially during winter and summer monsoon.

One of the major hurdles is the lack of weather monitoring ground stations. Currently, IMD operates around 800 automatic weather stations (AWS), 1,500 automatic rain gauges (ARG) and 37 doppler weather radars (DWR). This is against the total requirements of more than 3,00,000 ground stations (AWS/ARG) and around 70 DWRs. It’s interesting to note that several Indian State governments and private companies operate a significant network of ground stations (more than 20,000), many of which are not currently used by IMD. The factors range from the inaccessibility of the data to their reliability.

Currently, most of the prediction software used in forecasting are based on the global forecasting system and weather research and forecasting models, both of which are not the most modern. In contrast, with the government’s focus on Make in India, its support to start-ups and the huge public and private investments in the sectors of agriculture and climate, many new age companies are switching to artificial intelligence/machine (AI/ML) learning for more predictions. At the same time though, these technologies are only as good and verifiable as the data they can access. Thus there is an urgent need for an integrated system to fill these data gaps. New ground stations will have to be installed and the available data have to be shared seamlessly.

A promising step forward was that recently, the Department of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare have initiated the weather information network and data system (WINDS) to generate long-term, hyper-local weather data. The system will also promote the data for wider applications in agriculture and other sectors, it will help in creating a national-level data base, and it will assist in establishing the protocols required to access the country-wide data by the various public and private concerns. Under this programme, more than 200,000 ground stations (AWS and ARG) will be installed, which can help tremendously in enhancing weather data utilisation and thus in improving weather predictions and decision making.

Meanwhile, air pollution continues to be a challenge. In the last month large dense fog blanketed the NCR region, leading to near-zero visibility. This happens mainly because of the high particulate matter and smog in the atmosphere. Fog can trap the pollutants close to the ground, leading to an increase in respiratory and other health-related issues. Another cause for worry is that in foggy conditions, some pollutants like nitrogen  oxides  can  react  with  other  compounds  to  form  secondary pollutants, thus posing severe health risks, particularly to children and the elderly.

Air quality monitoring systems are currently very expensive and tend to be imported. Thanks to the Make in India initiatives, however, many Indian companies have started to manufacture low-cost and highly reliable sensor-based air quality monitoring systems. These are also easy to install and have low maintenance costs. Thus, it is now possible to install a large number of such instruments quickly, especially in the urban areas. The IITs are helping as well as they have started centres of excellence in this domain, with a mission to establish a nation-wide network of affordable air quality sensors. An integrated AI/ML-based model with data from the new air quality and weather sensors will be a major step forward to accurately predict fog as it will help in timely decision making around transportation and the health-related impacts of air pollution.

With the recent advances India is therefore poised towards establishing a world class, robust air quality and weather information network. What will bring everything together is a time-bound, inclusive approach by the various stakeholders to create this most important of national infrastructures. Once seamless data sharing and systems integration is achieved, India will have access to a new information gateway and one that is critical to addressing our climate and environmental challenges.

(Sachchida Nand Tripathi is Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Kanpur, and Ashish Agarwal is Founder & Chief Technology Officer, Ingen Technologies)

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