Leverage improved forecast to deal with disasters

  • Fueled by unusually warm waters, cyclone Amphan became one of the strongest cyclones in the recorded history of the north Indian Ocean, impacting coastal West Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh.
  • India’s improved and timely forecast for cyclones (track and intensity) gives the government opportunity and time to prepare and manage.
  • Better linkages between sectoral ministries and national disaster management authorities needed in countries when it comes to assessing disaster risks.
  • It is important to acknowledge the problem beyond disaster management framing and should be framed as an adaptation need. Preparedness towards disaster governance in West Bengal must be revamped.

As warm ocean temperatures drive rapid intensification of cyclones, like that seen with cyclone Amphan, climate scientists and disaster management experts call for improved preparedness leveraging India’s robust cyclone forecasts.

Early warnings on Amphan by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) triggered large-scale evacuations in coastal districts of Bay of Bengal states Odisha and West Bengal, as well as in Bangladesh.

The response in Bengal, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, failed to match the early warning, prompting a demand for revamping the state’s disaster governance. Odisha, which drew acclaim for managing cyclone Phailin in 2013 and most recently for managing cyclone Fani in May 2019, once again proved the effectiveness of its disaster governance, a far cry from the devastation brought on by the 1999 supercyclone.

Loretta Hieber Girardet, chief of UNDRR in Asia-Pacific told Mongabay-India that Amphan is the first real test of how authorities can manage the “tightrope” of dealing with the dual challenge of climate-related disasters and the guarding against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nachiketa Acharya of International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, United States said “we were able to take more advantage of cyclone early warnings/forecasting for risk management” but cyclone forecasts can be tailored to the power sectors, water supply sectors, and to disaster management for better preparedness.

“For example with the forecast of 160 kmph wind, disaster management can imagine the extent of property damages or the power sector can prepare for the aftermath (managing power demands from other sources, etc.),” Acharya said, adding IMD’s improved and timely forecast for cyclones (track and intensity) gives the government opportunity and time to prepare and manage.

Indrajit Pal, Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand, said taking lessons from the previous disasters (such as Aila, 2009, Bulbul, 2019), the state government of West Bengal should have been equipped and prepared to handle the future hazards.

“Early Warning System (EWS) is much more than issuing information on the hazards. The preparedness for response and relief could have been improved with the planned risk governance prior to the incidents. Preparedness for faster recovery is challenging without an institutionalised risk governance system,” Pal told Mongabay-India, even as the IMD on May 31 warned of a low-pressure area that has formed over the southeast and adjoining east-central Arabian Sea and Lakshadweep area and is likely to intensify further into a cyclonic storm during the subsequent 24 hours.

Kolkata after Amphan. Photo by Santanupyne/Wikimedia Commons.

Rapid intensification of cyclones

Supercyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal between Digha and Hatiya on the afternoon of May 20, as a very severe cyclonic storm with sustained wind speeds of 155-165 kilometres per hour spiralling up to 185 kilometres per hour.

The storm in Bengal claimed at least 86 lives, caused massive damage to standing crops, uprooted thousands of trees, and interrupted power and water supply in the state capital Kolkata and coastal and deltaic areas hit by the cyclone. Protests erupted in the city over the restoration of normalcy. Authorities are still struggling to mount relief operations amid a lockdown to contain the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

Amphan went through a rapid intensification from category 1 to category 5 in just about 18 hours, assisted by high temperatures over the Bay of Bengal.

Climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune said, “We are seeing similar rapid intensification for other cyclones also in the current decade, mostly due to warm ocean temperatures. The ocean temperatures enhance the convection (the upward motion of warm moist air) and provide the fuel for cyclone formation.”

The north Indian Ocean (the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea) normally experiences about five tropical cyclones annually which is about 5-6 percent of the global annual average. About 80 cyclones form around the globe in a year.

The frequency of cyclones is more in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) than in the Arabian Sea: four tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal while the Arabian Sea experiences one. A total of 306 cyclonic storms formed in the Bay of Bengal in an 80-year period (1933-2012) and those in the Arabian Sea total 92, a study said.

The total systems of cyclonic storms formed in the Bay of Bengal over these 80 years exceed those of the Arabian Sea because it is relatively colder than the Bay of Bengal, so fewer systems are formed. “However, rapid warming is making it fertile for cyclone formation. This could be one reason for an increase in the number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea,” said Koll.

Listen: Climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll on why Cyclone Amphan was so fierce

Chasing cyclones

Gopal Iyengar at National Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences said satellites and buoys in the north Indian Ocean are the essential tools to track the formation of a cyclone and several MoES organisations/institutions work to deliver accurate and reliable information.

“We have all the tools. We have satellites (ISRO) and we have the weather buoys installed in the Bay of Bengal by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT). We keep on monitoring these products for any development of cyclonic disturbances over the sea. When we get a hint of a system developing, the conditions are closely monitored by the IMD,” Iyengar told Mongabay-India.

Koll said while satellites help us with a lot of information in terms of monitoring the cyclone, thick clouds prevent us from monitoring the sea surface information.“The buoys deployed in the Indian Ocean relay high-resolution data of winds, temperatures and waves at different locations.”

Coastal buoy in the Indian Ocean to relay data about wind, temperatures and waves. Photo by NIOT.
Coastal buoy in the Indian Ocean to relay data about wind, temperatures and waves. Photo by NIOT.

In the northern Indian Ocean there are 12 OMNI Ocean Moored Buoys that transmit data in real-time through satellite. “There are five in the Arabian sea and seven in BoB. There are four coastal buoys, one each at Lakshadweep, Goa, Chennai, and Andamans, and we have one calibration validation buoy at Lakshadweep,” M.A. Atmanand, director, NIOT, told Mongabay-India.

As the disturbance comes closer to the Indian coastline, the Doppler weather radars along the coast follow the cyclonic disturbance.

“The observed data is then fed into global and regional weather prediction models that helps us to know how the cyclone is intensifying and which track it is going to take. Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) chip in with data on the storm surges that we can expect,” said Gopal Iyengar.

In the case of cyclone Amphan, buoys installed in the Bay of Bengal recorded surface temperatures of 32 to 34 degree Celsius prior to the cyclone. “There is a potential uncertainty of 1 degree Celsius but still we have never seen such high values until now. The surface temperatures are high probably because it is riding on the global warming trends in the background,” explained Koll.

Bay of Bengal and overlapping disasters

The Bay of Bengal accounts for only five percent of tropical cyclones but claim more than 80 percent of the fatalities due to these storms, said Koll. “The low number and their intensity are because the smaller area of the basin does not provide them enough room for developing into stronger cyclones. However, climate change is proving to be a catalyst in intensifying these storms.”

UNDRR’s Asia Pacific chief Loretta Hieber Girardet said if there is a silver lining, it is that Odisha is a pioneer in India when it comes to disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and Bangladesh has one of the oldest and best-known cyclone preparedness programs in the region, with thousands of volunteers.

In addition to updated and integrated disaster management plans, Pal batted for Incident Response Team (IRT) for a structured approach to response management, and improvements in the risk communication at the local level or planning last mile connectivity as “absolutely necessary” to minimise the loss and disruptions.

Odisha’s Special Relief Commissioner Pradeep Jena told Mongabay-India that with overlapping disasters of COVID-19 and extreme weather events, the state is in the process of designing an integrated disaster management plan that will encompass the pandemic associated guidelines on social distancing and hygiene and features of a new normal regime.

“We have to consider this as a new normal for future disaster planning. Overall, it was a balancing act between staying at home and staying safe (for COVID-19) and sending people to shelters. The permanent shelters could house people at only one-fourth of their capacity to comply with social distancing norms,” he said.

Women in a cyclone shelter in Odisha, 2019. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author Joyashree Roy emphasised that it is important to acknowledge the problem beyond disaster management framing and should be framed as an adaptation need.

Preparedness towards disaster governance in the state (Bengal) must be revamped.

“After this, a draft action agenda should be prepared for an adaptation plan involving experts in local issues and by involving all stakeholders which should be discussed in public. This should include adaptation preparedness (first 20 doables to be taught in every house and running rules/training/drill from time to time),” Roy, Bangabandhu chair professor, AIT, told Mongabay-India.

“So what is needed is response strategy planning. Every utility/department must submit their work plan in case of such eventualities with an accountability clause. All these need to start from today by asking for Expression of Interest to add to the knowledge pool.”

“Our ability to predict extreme weather events and understanding of what needs to be done has improved and science must have a closer dialogue to inform policy and planning.”

As for the Sundarbans, researcher Upasona Ghosh said since the region is a special region with very specific ecological, social, and economic needs, it should not be merged with one-size-fits-all plans and programs. “This knowledge is presently lacking among the policymakers for Sundarbans. Presently we have effective disaster management plans which work best when a disaster is going to strike, like flood centres, evacuation of the people from embankments, providing relief materials, etc. But there is no long term planning for sustainable adaptation in the context of climate change, especially in the sector of livelihood, food security, and tapping local resources available to the poor and vulnerable.”

The Disaster Management Act 2005 and the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) 2009 marks the institutionalisation of the paradigm shift in disaster management in India, from a relief-centric approach to one of proactive prevention, mitigation, and preparedness. The revised NDMP 2019 (that references the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report) notes that while it is not possible to establish a direct one to one functional relationship between specific extreme weather events and any of the specific climate change parameters expressed in global terms (deviations long-term global averages), it is certain that the global climate change does increase disaster risk significantly, although not amenable to precise forecasts. That emphasises the
need for a more comprehensive approach to disaster risk reduction.

Girardet adds: “In the mid to long term, we do know that climate-related hazards are becoming more extreme and frequent, and at the same time, COVID-19 has demonstrated how devastating biological hazards can be. Therefore, moving forward, all countries should seek better linkages between sectoral ministries and national disaster management authorities when it comes to assessing disaster risks. Specifically, biological hazards need to be integrated into national disaster risk reduction strategies.”


Banner image: Coastal buoy in the Indian Ocean to relay data about wind, temperatures and waves. Photo by NIOT.

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