India in 2005 and the legacy of MONEX
I have just returned from almost four weeks in India, where I participated
in two international meetings in New Delhi. One, held at the India
Habitat Center on 3-7 February, celebrated the 25th anniversary of
the Summer MONEX (Monsoon Experiment). The other involved brainstorming
for the next decade of work on modeling and predicting the Indian monsoon;
it was held on 1-2 February at the National Centre for Medium Range
Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF), which is India's main center for forecast
model development and a UCAR international affiliate.
A key question
affecting the future of India will be how the monsoons change as
climate changes. The summer monsoon, which occurs mainly in July and
August, is celebrated throughout India for its magical powers of rejuvenation.
Probably no country on Earth experiences such a direct and vital dependence
upon a single meteorological phenomenon. And perhaps few if any other
countries have a future that depends so critically on how the characteristics
of a monsoon evolve.
Steps toward better prediction
The MONEX-25 meeting celebrated the accomplishments of the landmark
field project with more than a hundred talks, mainly by Indian and
U.S. scientists. MONEX-1979 was one of the largest international meteorological
experiments of the past three decades and was strongly supported by
NSF, represented at this meeting by Jay Fein. Joining me from UCAR/NCAR
were Joach Kuettner, Mitch Moncrieff, and Karyn Sawyer. Other U.S.
participants were Jon Ahlquist (Florida State University), Bob Houze
(University of Washington), T.N. Krishnamurti (Florida State University),
Jagadish Shukla (Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies and George
Mason University), and Peter Webster (Georgia Institute of Technology),who
was accompanied by his graduate students Tom Hopson (University of
Colorado) and Carlos Hoyos (Georgia Tech).
On behalf of NSF, Jay Fein accepts a bouquet expressing thanks
from the Indian research community for NSF's support
of MONEX-1979. Also pictured are (left to right) D.
R. Sikka (former director, Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology),
V. S. Ramamurthy
(India Department of Science and Technology), S. K. Dube (Indian Institute
of Technology), and Peter Webster (Georgia Institute of Technology). (Photo
by Rick Anthes.)
Since MONEX-1979, there has been an increasing realization that the
Indian monsoon is part of a much larger coupled ocean-atmosphere system,
connected to events and phenomena such as the El Niño-Southern
Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, and the Madden-Julian
Oscillation. As the capability to observe and model the features of
the monsoon has increased, some of the mysteries associated with monsoon
phenomena such as onsets, bursts, active periods, and breaks are disappearing.
A challenge for the India Meteorological Department, India's government
forecasting agency, is to update some of its older empirical models
and forecasting methods. Altogether, the outlook about what is possible
for Indian weather prediction in the next few years, as summarized
eloquently by Shukla and Webster many times during the meeting, is
extremely positive. Vast amounts of satellite data are now available
to initialize high-resolution numerical models for the region, and
upcoming systems such as the India National Satellites will add further
to the input base. Better observations of surface boundary conditions
over the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions are likely to
be important for increasing the accuracy of weather forecasts.
However, a number of issues remain that scientists need to address
in order to realize the potential of India's monsoon forecasting efforts,
- recruiting and educating staff,
- adopting modern statistical techniques and models,
- improving NCMWRF's models and data assimilation techniques,
- improving the quality of Indian radiosondes, and
- adopting policies that encourage and facilitate sharing of Indian
observations with the global community.
Weather, climate, and culture
One of the most interesting talks of the conference was an evening
presentation given by Jairam Ramesh, a noted economist and member
of India's Parliament. Ramesh emphasized that the Indian economy continues
to hinge on the monsoon even as the country transitions from an agrarian
economy (still accounting for 65% of India's employment) to a broader
base of manufacturing and information technology. He cited studies
showing that 45% of the variation in India's gross domestic product
since 1950 was caused by variations in monsoon rainfall. Forecasts
of the monsoon on time scales ranging from seasonal to weekly and
daily are of enormous importance and have a great direct impact on
the entire economy, including inflation.
Prior to the meetings in New Delhi, my wife and I visited a number
of historic cities in Rajasthan, including Agra, Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri,
Udaipur and Jodhpur. Visiting a country for the first time that is
simultaneously ageless, complex, and rapidly changing was a fascinating
and educational experience. India is the seventh largest country in
the world geographically, and next to China it has the world's greatest
population, recently topping the one billion mark. With one of the
highest population densities in the world, how India will manage and
support its people as it becomes the third greatest economy in the
world (behind the United States and China) in a changing climate is
an amazing story in progress, one whose outcome will affect the entire
Outside Delhi, the ever-present influence of agriculture was obvious.
Along with a few larger cities with significant tourism, we saw massive
farms surrounding thousands of small villages. Many of the agricultural
practices appear not to have changed over hundreds of years.
Using oxen, people drew water from hand-made wells, some of them deeper
than 200 meters (660 feet). Women sold vegetables by the roadside.
Crops, construction materials, and other goods were carried on foot
or by using bicycles and camel drawn wagons, in addition to trucks
and more modern means of transport.
Agricultural goods make their way across India via oxcart, camel
caravan, and human transport. (Photos by Rick Anthes.)
Water and the monsoons are on everybody's minds year-round. While
there are light rainfall events in and near Delhi throughout the
year (we had several light rains and a couple of thunderstorms during
our visit), by far the main part of the annual precipitation occurs
in July and August associated with the summer monsoons. A "good" monsoon
means a good economic year following the monsoon; a monsoon that "fails" is
often followed by extreme hardship and even widespread starvation.
Farther west in Rajasthan, at the border of the Thar Desert, water
is a particularly precious and scarce resource, and it has apparently
become scarcer over recent years. Rivers are dry, the water level
in wells is deeper than ever before, and lakes that have provided irrigation
and drinking water and supported tourism are drying up. Excessive
grazing by livestock, triggered by the steady increase in population,
damages the ecosystems in this fragile region of poor soil susceptible
to erosion and dependent upon scant and highly variable monsoon rains.
In recent years, these effects have often been linked by residents
to climate change, but climate variability on all time scales is large
in this region of marginal rainfall.
Clearly, regardless of climate change, this is a society strongly
sensitive to the monsoon and the broader hydrologic cycle. How monsoons
might change in a warming world over the next 50 years, and how these
changes might affect an already vulnerable society, was the topic
of my talk, "Monsoons
in a warming and a more populous world: The question of sustainability," co-authored
with Peter Webster and Ben Webster.
I left India in the midst of a vigorous nocturnal thunderstorm, having
met new friends and colleagues and gained a greater appreciation
for the country, its culture, its environmental challenges, and its
future. Advances in understanding and predicting the monsoon and how
it will change as global climate warms will continue to play a major
role as India develops and increases the well-being of its people.