President's Corner

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, including

  • 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 world.

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.


Also in this issue:

Going to extremes

Up close with Caribbean cumulus

Face time across the miles

A sabbatical at the foundation

New division directors at NCAR

Slick roads meet their match

Science Bit - Liquid at work on Saturn’s largest moon

UCAR Community Calendar