The monsoon is becoming more extreme

By Henry Fountain

KUMBHARWADI, India — Like all of India’s tens of millions of small farmers whose lives depend on the annual monsoon, Bhagwat Gagre keeps a firm eye on the sky.

At his village in the shadow of the Western Ghats mountain range, the rainy season usually starts in June. Winds over the subcontinent reverse, as they have for millennia, carrying clouds ripe with water from the Arabian Sea up over the Ghats, soaking Gagre’s tiny farm in Kumbharwadi and ensuring that the crops he and his wife sow will have the rain they need.

Now, however, across South Asia, climate change is making the monsoon more erratic, less dependable and even dangerous, with more violent rainfall as well as worsening dry spells. For a region home to nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, the consequences are dire.

At Gagre’s farm in late August, dryness was the problem — the monsoon had begun to feel all but absent. “If we don’t get rain in the next 15 or 20 days,” he said, gesturing to his fields, “productivity will go down 50%”.

In other parts of South Asia, the problem was too much rain, too quickly. Pakistan, to India’s northwest, was struck by relentless downpours, leaving much of the nation underwater and killing at least 1,500 people. In Bengaluru, India’s tech capital, devastating rains in early September forced workers to use boats instead of cars in the streets.

Scientists blame global warming from the burning of fossil fuels for the changes in the monsoon. Computer models suggest that as this warming continues, the monsoon will strengthen, with more rain overall.

But the scientists also see what farmers like Gagre are experiencing: greater uncertainty.

“The heavy rainfall events are increasing at a rapid pace,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. “That is a very, very clear shift that we see in monsoon patterns.”

The monsoon season is defined by patterns.

It begins on India’s west coast with a springtime reversal of winds, pushing moisture-laden air from the Arabian Sea toward land. Then, from the Bay of Bengal to the east, winds start carrying more rain across the subcontinent.

Through July and August, the rains march northward in fits and starts. In September the monsoon retreats for another year.

But the monsoon is much more than rain — it’s a collective mood, a shared experience across communities and across time, and deeply ingrained. Artists and poets have tried to capture it for centuries. Novelists use it as a plot device, and it provides rainy, romantic interludes in countless Bollywood movies. And the monsoon is an economic force, particularly for the small farmers who get three-quarters, or more, of their annual rainfall from it.

A good monsoon can bring plenty; a bad monsoon, hardship. And in the past, a terrible monsoon could bring famine.

The monsoon is becoming more erratic because of a basic bit of science: Warmer air holds more moisture. The moisture accumulates in the atmosphere and can stay there longer, increasing the length of dry spells. But then, when it does rain, “it dumps all that moisture in a very short time,” Koll said. “It can be a month’s rainfall or a week’s rainfall in a few hours to a few days.”

Gagre farms in a drylands region. Because he lives in the shadow of the Ghats, the monsoon brings less rain — the mountains wring most of the moisture from the clouds before it can reach his farm. For him, longer dry spells are a big threat.

To cope, villagers have dug long, meandering trenches by hand along the hillsides, the better to catch the rain that falls, prevent it from running off into streams and give it time to soak into the ground. That has helped keep local wells from drying up after the monsoon is over.

And if the trenches and other water-conservation efforts had not worked? “Nobody would be living here today,” Gagre said.

A Palace for the Clouds

In the 1870s, Sajjan Singh, the teenage ruler of the Mewar region in western India, ordered the construction of a marble palace on a rugged hill above the lake city of Udaipur. The monsoon for him was a source of fascination, and the new palace would be a fine place to watch the clouds roll in.

Sajjan Singh didn’t live to see it finished — he died at 26, perhaps, it’s been said, of drink — but the building was completed by his successor. Tourists, mostly from India’s burgeoning middle class, are drawn to it today, cramming into taxis for the winding, bumpy ride up the hill.

Known as the Monsoon Palace, its eastern side offers a sweeping view of Udaipur and its glistening waters. But in summer the view from the opposite side is equally spectacular: the approach of moisture-laden monsoon clouds, scudding across the sky.

Those clouds are borne on winds from the southwest. And for a long time, that was most of what was known about the monsoon — it was caused by a shift in the winds that occurred in late spring and continued through summer. At least as far back as the first century, sailors had learned to take advantage of these winds, riding them from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to India.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Edmond Halley, the English astronomer and meteorologist best known for the comet that bears his name, finally described the monsoon’s mechanism. The shift in the winds — the arrival of rain — was caused by seasonal changes in the relationship between ocean and land temperatures.

He was right. And remarkably, “His theory was entirely based on hearsay evidence,” said Ranjan Kelkar, a student of the monsoon who headed the India Meteorological Department from 1998 to 2003. “Halley had never come to India.”

By the time the Monsoon Palace was built, there was plenty of direct evidence. This was largely thanks to the British East India Co., which ruled the country for a century, until the mid-1800s. The company “did many bad things, but among the good things was that it set up rain gauges and observatories,” Kelkar said.

A succession of British, and later Indian, scientists divined more details of the monsoon, including how the rains occur as the moist ocean air hits the subcontinent, rises and cools, and the moisture condenses into raindrops.

Scientists now know that the monsoon is quite complex. Other theories of how it originates have been developed, including one that ties the monsoon to the northward shift of a zone of trade winds. But the basics, as Halley outlined, remain. An engine that drives it is the temperature difference between land and ocean.

In spring, as the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, the subcontinent heats faster than the ocean. As the air over the land warms, the air pressure drops, which draws in higher-pressure air from the ocean. “That temperature difference creates this pressure difference that drives this moisture-laden air from the ocean toward the land,” Koll said. The rotation of Earth gives these winds their direction.

But that’s only part of the story, said Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “The moment the first rain falls, the land gets cooled,” he said.

That would be expected to stop, or at least slow, the monsoon, by reducing the temperature difference between land and ocean. But there’s now another source of warmth over the land: the condensation of water vapour into droplets, which releases heat. That maintains the temperature difference and keeps the monsoon going.

This self-sustaining feature is important, Levermann said, because it suggests that, as the world keeps getting warmer, year-to-year variability of the monsoon could increase. “Once you have started the monsoon strong, it will become even stronger,” he said. “Once you have started the monsoon weak, it will become weaker.”

Over the centuries the subcontinent has experienced weak or “failed” monsoons, in which the overall amount of rain is 20%-30% lower than average. A failed monsoon in 1899 led to the deaths of 9 million people in central India, by some estimates.

In the middle of the 20th century, foreign aid helped India get through poor monsoons without famine. Since then, improvements in agriculture have made a big difference.

The Big Decision

In a country obsessed with the monsoon, Rajendra Jenamani plays a crucial role.

Jenamani is a senior scientist with the national forecasting centre at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi. One of his jobs, in consultation with his colleagues, is to determine when the year’s monsoon has actually begun.

It is a decision that the nation tracks closely. The monsoon’s march across the subcontinent is front-page news for days on end. Television anchors ask again and again, will it be early this year? Late? When will we know?

Jenamani and his co-workers make this weighty call in a room that might easily be mistaken for a company’s IT department: Shiny white floor, glaring overhead lights, arrays of computer screens and a few floor fans to help fight back the New Delhi heat.

For the start to be declared, there’s a set of criteria that must be met at weather stations in the state of Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast, involving precipitation and cloud cover, as well as wind speed and direction.

Of those criteria, Jenamani said, “No. 1 is the rainfall.” No matter the state of the wind and clouds, he said, “how can you tell the farmers that the monsoon has come if there isn’t any rain?”

(But if the criteria are met, Jenamani consults with his colleagues and also puts a question to forecasters in Kerala: Do you have any doubts that the monsoon has arrived? “And they say, ‘No, no, no, this is the right time,’” he said.

Only then does Jenamani head upstairs to brief his boss. The news media gathers in the lobby, and a formal announcement is made.

Thereafter, at 10:30 each morning, as the monsoon progresses, Jenamani leads a meeting of the forecasters and analysts in his office, joined by several dozen regional meteorologists on large screens along one wall, to discuss that day’s forecast.

This year’s onset was declared on May 29, a few days ahead of normal. By the first week of July, the monsoon covered the entire country. Withdrawal began in mid-September.

The monsoon’s south-to-north migration means that, for extreme northwestern India, the rainy season lasts only two months, about half the duration in cities that are much farther south like Mumbai or Chennai. Whatever the location, however, the monsoon will account for up to 80% of the water received during 2022.

“So this is all our life,” Jenamani said. “This is all our water.”

The hand-dug trenches that line the hills around Gagre’s farm have helped transform his village.

When it comes to rainfall, the idea is simple: “Capture whatever you can,” said Crispino Lobo, who co-founded the Watershed Organization Trust, a group that aids monsoon-dependent farmers in Kumbharwadi and hundreds of other villages in trench-digging and other water-conservation efforts to make the most of their increasingly erratic supply.

As warming brings more extreme downpours, it becomes harder to ensure that most of the water stays on the land instead of running off into streams and rivers.

The trenches prevent precious water from rushing away so easily, Lobo said: “You slow it down, you make it walk.” That helps give it a chance to seep into the water table and be available from wells during the dry months.

In a very real way, the hand-dug trenches have achieved far more than preserving water. In an increasingly erratic monsoon, they have helped keep Gagre’s village alive and thriving.

In Kumbharwadi, Gagre said, before the trenches were dug, often there would be no water after January or February, even when there were good monsoons. Every year for months at a time, people were forced to leave their homes in search of work.

Far to the south, in Kerala, schoolchildren are doing a different kind of work: helping to monitor the threat of flooding from the monsoon’s heavy downpours.

Every morning at St. Joseph’s Upper Primary School in the hilly village of Malayinchippara, at the 8:30 assembly, some of the 100 students take a reading from a simple cylindrical rain gauge, installed in 2020. They enter how much rain has fallen in a WhatsApp group set up by other volunteers.

It is combined with data from similar gauges in the region to provide a picture of the state of the Meenachil River, which passes about 5 miles from the school and is prone to disastrous flooding in its lower reaches.

“It’s a good thing,” said Ananyamol Thomas, a seventh-grader. “Maybe our rain gauge can help alert the authorities to evacuate people in vulnerable areas.”

The citizen-science project is organized by a local group, the Meenachil River Protection Council. Eby Emmanuel, the group’s secretary, said the rain-monitoring work began informally about five years ago. It has now grown to include 220 gauges. Many are at schools, but farmers and environmental activists have them as well. At St. Joseph’s, the project has been so popular that there are now rain gauges at the homes of four students.

Koll of the tropical meteorology institute in Pune, who has been involved in the effort, said because there are so many gauges, a lot of data is collected over a relatively small area.

“This is quite important because when we talk of these kinds of cloudburst downpours, it’s very localized,” he said. With all the data from gauges near the Meenachil, “you can tell that in three or four hours the river might swell.”

The project has had some successes, Emmanuel said. In 2019, rain gauge data during one monsoon storm suggested that the river would soon be rising, and rapidly. Members of the protection council recognized that a community of about 200 families, densely packed into a low-lying stretch along the river, were at risk.

They managed to persuade a rescue brigade that the community should be evacuated. It was — and in time to escape the floodwaters.

“We saved the lives of 200 families,” Emmanuel said. “That was a big moment for us.”

Poetry in the Rain

Kelkar, who is 79, lives in Pune now, having taught at a local university after leaving Delhi and the India Meteorological Department two decades ago. He retired in 2008 and lives a quiet life, writing and occasionally lecturing about various subjects, including the monsoon.

In the living room of his spare 10th-floor apartment he keeps a few shelves of monsoon books — not only the scientific treatises and histories one might expect, but also a lyric poem by a fifth-century writer, Kalidasa, in which a mythical spirit asks a monsoon cloud to send a message to his love.

After years focusing on science, Kelkar now takes a more spiritual approach to the monsoon.

For him, the arrival of the rains is less about how many weather stations have reported precipitation, and more about the senses and emotions. The abrupt shift in the wind. The sound of thunder, like a beating drum. The smell when the first raindrops hit the parched soil, kicking up dust. The sight of the land turning, with almost chameleon-like speed, from brown to a lush green.

“When the monsoon arrives, everything changes,” he said. “You know that this is not a normal day.”

Off his small kitchen is a balcony that offers a view to the south and west. It is Kelkar’s own Monsoon Palace.

“I come out here every hour just to let things soak in,” he said one late August afternoon, as the clouds approached and passed overhead, sparing Pune their rain this time. “You really feel that things are pretty much good.”

Sources and Methodology

Present and future precipitation data, as well as present wind speed and direction data, provided by Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Present rainfall data show average conditions in mid-August between 1995 and 2014. Future precipitation data show projected averages for the same period in mid-August between 2081 and 2100. Present wind speed and direction data show average conditions for 10-day time spans between March and October for 1995 through 2014.

Daily accumulated rainfall data for 2022 from the Climate Hazards Group at UC Santa Barbara.

-New York Times



Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

otc high blood pressure treatment blood pressure guidelines medications blood pressure pills that is safe for the liver high blood pressure medication levothyroxine blood pressure medication that reduces blood pressure is there any difference in blood pressure pills high blood pressure child medication blood pressure medication recommendation nose blue blood pressure medication blood pressure is 150 68 should i take my medication blood pressure medication while nursing taking a bunch of high blood pressure pills aerobic exercise and blood pressure medication good blood pressure medication acupuncture treatment for low blood pressure best over the counter pills for high blood pressure blood pressure pill amlodipine besylate high blood pressure signs and treatment moderna vaccine blood pressure medication which blood pressure drugs do not cause tinnitus blood pressure medication fights cancer blood pressure medication skin rash side effects of high blood pressure medication impotence medication to avoid on blood pressure medications high blood pressure rx medication peripheral neuropathy caused by blood pressure medication high blood pressure in pregnancy treatment nice runny nose do to blood pressure medication how to get off of blood pressure pills hiv medication and high blood pressure niacin treatment for high blood pressure two drugs for blood pressure that caused cancer high blood pressure causing medications high blood pressure medication names canada blood pressure medication side effects alcohol i take 3 blood pressure medication blood pressure pills that help with anxiety what iv drug raises blood pressure list of doctors who formulated blood pressure medications how to remember blood pressure medications sleeping pills blood pressure how fast does blood pressure medication take effect sweet n low high blood pressure medication home treatment for blood pressure high blood pressure medication matrocet high blood pressure medication doses blood pressure drug bystolic iberstaron blood pressure medication blood pressure medications st alphabetical celexa and high blood pressure medication does blood pressure pills irritation skin can i take combivent with high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications beta blockers list what to do if blood pressure medication does not work drugs to lower your blood pressure red beet pills for blood pressure taurine and blood pressure medications how ling for garlic pills to lower blood pressure blood pressure medication list and side effects can i take aspirin with high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication teaching about hot tubs water pills high blood pressure over counter what is an arb medication for blood pressure resveratrol high blood pressure medication high blood pressure medication and weight loss gum disease and blood pressure medication benzenesulfonic acid in blood pressure medication taking two blood pressure pills by mistake allergy pills for high blood pressure blood pressure prescription drugs safety blood pressure medication in pregnancy trazodone and blood pressure medication which blood pressure medication is linked to skin cancer list of blood pressure medications with the least side effects could blood pressure medication make blood thicker disadvantages of high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications ludipril typical drugs for high blood pressure otc water pills for high blood pressure blood pressure medications that do not doncause bowel blockage high blood pressure after corrosion treatment how soon does high blood pressure medication work blood pressure medication teaching amertyrine high blood pressure medication increased blood pressure and heart rate after drug overdose over the counter drugs high blood pressure blood pressure medication 25 is blood pressure medication a nitrate most effective blood pressure pills blood pressure medical does red yeast rice interfere with high blood pressure medication can apple cider vinegar pills lower blood pressure does blood pressure medication give you headaches high blood pressure medication and driving should you take blood pressure pills with food inn blood pressure drugs can you eat bananas if taking blood pressure medication popular high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication los blood pressure medication second drug low blood pressure and hypertension medication do water pills lower blood pressure high blood pressure pill aqunadine high blood pressure cholesterol medication how does medication lower blood pressure acetaminophen blood pressure medication blood pressure medication 30 mg that works around the heart what does grapefruit do to blood pressure medication can red yeast rice be taken with blood pressure medication pharmaceutical treatment for high blood pressure are blood pressure pills statins blood pressure pills that start with r blood pressure medication and male impotence taking baby aspirin with other high blood pressure medications what is the medical name for a blood pressure cuff leg cramps and blood pressure medication blood pressure pill name starts with p natural high blood pressure treatments blood pressure medication names losartan higher blood pressure with radiation treatment medical marijauna high blood pressure how to avoid medication for high blood pressure what time is best to take blood pressure medication medication for palpitations and high blood pressure latest news on blood pressure treatment what if i take two blood pressure pills does xanax interfere with blood pressure medication amlipan blood pressure medication vitamin e and blood pressure medication tell me the side effects of high blood pressure medication herbs pills to lower blood pressure blood pressure medication urge to urinate what medication will safely replace lisop as blood pressure medicine active ingredient in high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications cause adrenal tumors is biktarvy ok to take with high blood pressure medication alembic blood pressure medication sandoz blood pressure medication exercise high blood pressure medication grapefruit pills blood pressure treatment for high blood pressure at home blood pressure medication for patients with osa cycle on off blood pressure medication blood pressure drugs that do not cause heat sensitivity blood pressure medications that do not cause coughing what blood pressure medications do not cause rosacea pfizer blood pressure medication side effects do garlic pills really help lower blood pressure should i take medication for anxiety induced blood pressure treatment for uncontrolled blood pressure decongestant medication high blood pressure can stiff days be used with high blood pressure medication how long does it take medication to lower blood pressure what if i miss a blood pressure pill tribenzor high blood pressure pills law lawsuit 2023 treatment of sudden drop in blood pressure zoloft and blood pressure medication orange high blood pressure pill cancer blood pressure pill why cant people with high blood pressure take keto pills how long for blood pressure to go down mini pill should i get second opinion before taking blood pressure medication blood pressure erectile dysfunction medication high blood pressure medication m lot ben medical device lowers blood pressure puppy ate blood pressure pill are there medications for low blood pressure dod blood pressure medication is losartan a blood pressure pill combination drugs for blood pressure marijuana and blood pressure medication interaction blood pressure medication interactions with grapefruit can you eat bananas while taking high blood pressure medication steps before going on high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication when to cut down foods to avoid on blood pressure medication blood pressure medications depression blood pressure medication non beta blocker tattoos and high blood pressure medication what is the medications used to lower blood pressure quickly high blood pressure medication leg swelling blood pressure medication men in your 40s blood pressure medication wieight loss blood pressure medication hy can blood pressure medication lower blood sugar does blood pressure medication make you pee natural treatment high blood pressure during pregnancy can you take l arginine with high blood pressure medication what class of blood pressure medication can can blood pressure pills reduce appetite faa approved medication for high blood pressure high blood pressure medication during pregnancy best blood pressure medication for type 2 diabetes blood pressure and pain medication pain medication that does not affect blood pressure best high blood pressure drugs on the market if you take incorrect medications to lower blood pressure low blood pressure treatments does your body have to adjust to blood pressure medication why water pill for high blood pressure drugs for treatment of very high blood pressure during pregnancy can i drink grapefruit juice with high blood pressure medication can blood pressure pills make you feel cold high blood pressure medication that helps with weight loss amlodipine blood pressure drug blood pressure medication for infants varicose veins blood pressure medication life extension high blood pressure medication does tylenol interfere with blood pressure medication can i take diamox with other high blood pressure medications prestige medical blood pressure cuff calibration drugs used for high blood pressure chamomile tea and high blood pressure medication narcotics stored alongside blood pressure medications in does nutrigrove blood pressure pills work extremely low blood pressure treatment blood pressure medication for iga nephropathy blood pressure medication low side effects can i increase my blood pressure medication what is the best blood pressure medication to take drugs that cause increased blood pressure does biotin interfere with high blood pressure medication cani od on high blood pressure pills blood pressure medication that also helps with jerking blood pressure medication categories first line treatment of high blood pressure medication for low blood pressure in usa armour thyroid drug interactions blood pressure meds hepatitis c treatment high blood pressure high blood pressure arb drugs low blood pressure treatment with essential oils high blood pressure medication list for pregnancy blood pressure medication and snake venom blood pressure medication low dose liquid blood pressure medications ivf drugs and high blood pressure left my blood pressure medication does it matter when you take blood pressure medication can you take blood pressure pills twice a day privilin blood pressure medication how big are blood pressure pills once you start blood pressure medication can you stop diuretic in blood pressure medication what medication reduce blood pressure new blood pressure treatment prescribed home medications for high blood pressure blood pressure medication side effects forums taking blood pressure pills dizzy when bend over a lot blood pressure medication and nyquil cinnamon pills and high blood pressure temporary high blood pressure treatment single agent blood pressure medication blood pressure medication made in china fda approved medications to reduce blood pressure immediate treatment for high blood pressure at home best time to take blood pressure pills muscle loss on high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication when needed treat high blood pressure without medication blood pressure medication side effects for men cbd pills for high blood pressure blood pressure regulation without medication blood pressure medication and pre workout high blood pressure alzheimer disease and antihypertensive treatment miss blood pressure medication blood pressure pills suicide peaceful emergency drugs for low blood pressure common blood pressure medications in canada systolic blood pressure define medical viril and high blood pressure pills can statin drugs help lower blood pressure do you have to wean off blood pressure medication new drugs for blood pressure when is high blood pressure medication necessary drugs for hi blood pressure cold medications and blood pressure taking 2 blood pressure pills mistake why doctors stopped prescribing blood pressure medication common high blood pressure medication canada what side effects does blood pressure medication have ulcer medication high blood pressure can high blood pressure medication elevate alkaline phosphatase blood pressure medication warning getting blood pressure medication jamaica alkaline water and blood pressure medication blood pressure going up and down with medication drugs reduce systolic blood pressure treatment for rapid high blood pressure low blood pressure alternative treatment do all high blood pressure medications cause weight gain medication for increasing blood pressure blood pressure medication for african american males vitamins for high blood pressure treatment aleve with blood pressure medication how to lower blood pressure without pills blood pressure triple pill who blood pressure guidelines for hygiene treatment what drug reduces blood pressure blood pressure medications enalapril met blood pressure medication