- The meteorological station at Leh is the highest weather station in India, located at an altitude of 3,524 metres above sea level.
- Established in December 2020, this centre collects and disseminates localised weather data, which helps in predicting disasters and controlling traffic on the highways. It also helps the farmers in the region.
- The data received from this weather station is very important for monitoring the delicate ecology of Ladakh, which can help in the long-term research of the cold mountainous desert in the Himalayas.
Meteorologist Abhay Singh’s day starts at 5.30 a.m. His primary mandate is to keep a close eye on the weather. He studies the direction and speed of the wind, and assesses the condition of the clouds. This might seem like routine work for anyone working at any weather station, but where Singh works is no ordinary weather station; it is the highest meteorological station in the country.
Situated at an altitude of 11,562 feet (3,524 metres) above sea level, this weather station in Leh, the capital of the Union Territory of Ladakh, is dedicated to making the cold mountainous region safer for the people, and averting losses due to extreme weather events. Established on December 29, 2020, the station is responsible for accounting changes in the complex micro-climate of the region.
The climate in Ladakh is extremely cold and dry. The weather can take a turn at any moment. Within minutes, normal weather can turn into a snow storm. Events like cloudbursts, flash floods, glacial lake outbursts (GLOF), avalanches and droughts, lead to heavy loss of life and property. The two important highways connecting Ladakh with the rest of the country — the Leh-Manali highway and the Leh-Srinagar highway — are frequently hit by avalanches and heavy snowfall on the passes.
The information that Singh collects every day, therefore becomes crucial for the tourists traveling on the difficult hilly routes and treks here. Air pressure, humidity, temperature, snowfall and rain data are also recorded every day at this centre.
Once every three hours, he checks the functionality of machines such as the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure, thermometers and hygrometers for measuring temperature and humidity, and an anemometer for measuring wind speed and direction in the open ground next to the centre. There are also Automatic Weather stations (AWS) and Automatic Raingauge stations (ARG) for near real-time weather forecasting services of IMD, which work on an auto-pilot mode and send information to IMD Leh and other centres such as Kashmir and Delhi, throughout the day.
In conversation with Mongabay-India, Singh says, “Based on the information we are collecting, a general weather report is prepared, and sent to various agencies, ranging from the district administration to the Centre. Apart from this, a weather forecast is also made, which is helpful for both local residents and the tourists. This type of information helps in traffic and disaster management on hilly roads. It also helps the farmers.”
However, Singh’s job is not easy. The high altitude makes weather prediction, a challenging task. “Last time, we recorded a temperature of -18 to -20 degrees Celsius, in the months of December and January. In these months, there is snow all around, and even drinking water freezes. Such strong and icy winds blow that standing outside even for a minute becomes difficult. In such a situation, it is very difficult to collect data continuously. It is even more difficult work when the oxygen level is low,” he explains.
Leh receives an annual precipitation of 100 mm (rain during June-October and snow during November-May). “However, the Zanskar and Kargil areas receive more precipitation than Leh. And Leh is also known as the ‘cold desert’, which makes it (the landscape) unique,” shares Mrityunjay Mohapatra, Director General of India Meteorological Department (IMD).
According to Mohapatra, the weather stations at Leh, both manual and automatic, are crucial to studying the changes in weather and climate of the region, which has a very fragile ecology. It is also vital for the agriculture, because it is irrigation-based and not rain-fed, he adds.
“Being situated at a strategic location, information on weather and climate is very important for the safety and security of the country,” Mahopatra continues.
The IMD has installed Automatic Weather Stations (AWSes) covering all directions of Ladakh (Nyoma, Hunder Nubra, Tangtse near Pangong Lake, Padum Zanskar, Drass, Kargil, Garkone Aryan Valley, Upshi, Chuchot, Stakna and, of course, Leh). Real-time weather data from these stations are available online.
Weather researchers however, opine that the access to data from these strategically important stations, needs improvement. Santonu Goswami, a member of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability and a faculty member at Azim Premji University, in an email conversation with Mongabay-India, shed light on the state of weather data availability in India and the role of stations like IMD Leh in bridging the data gap.
When asked about the current weather data availability in India and how stations like the one in Leh contribute to addressing this gap, Goswami responds, “The dissemination of weather data from IMD has improved a lot over the years, quite dramatically in the last year or so from my personal experience. But it is still not at the global standard, if I want to compare the IMD service with, say, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the USA. If I want to download weather data from any weather station in the U.S., I can go to their data portal, select the parameters and the period, place the order, and the data will be ready in the next minute. And it is free. We are not there yet and need to be there if we want our students and researchers to work with Indian weather station data. IMD makes the grid data ready for download, free of cost, but we often need data from the weather stations.”
This story was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.
Banner image: India’s highest meteorological station located in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, at an altitude of 11,562 feet above sea level. Photo by Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay.