Saturday, December 17, 2005

Can We Get The Weather Right, At Least ?



Central Park, New York: We Knew This Was Gonna Happen

It was roughly -7 degrees C (low) in New York yesterday. Today, its likely to be closer to -1 C. It snowed and rained, in that order, last evening. The snow flurries began coming down roughly 5 pm or so, at least where I was driving across the Hudson river near New Jersey.

Today's been bright and sunny all day and temperatures went upto 7 degrees C. Actually its the first such day in weeks, after it snowed heavily on the morning of the 9th of December. The temperatures, dates and times have been noted down from weather reports which you can access anywhere in the world, including for hours on local television stations. The only difference is that each of these weather events were predicted and forecasted, down to the minute almost, anywhere between a day to a week before it happened. Its a degree of accuracy that's almost scary.

So the taxi driver out of JFK (I landed on an internal flight) told me not to venture out the next morning because it would snow at 5 am. He asked whether I would be suitably clothed for the ocassion if I did venture out at that time. "Hardly," I said. "Be advised that there will be heavy snowfall," he said. Of course, I was well advised and well prepared, like millions of other Americans on the north-east coast.

More Rights Than Wrongs

It was no different yesterday. A proposal to `steak out' was nixed in the morning because of the impending snow, sleet and rains in the evening. It was pretty clear by afternoon that this would be an evening of rest and recreation. Accordingly, the neighbouring video library (which stocks a shockingly large number of VHS tapes) was visited and two films including one by Oliver Stone called U Turn procured.

Of course, the weather forecasters don't get it right always, as my friends in America like to point out. The fact is that they got it right on two critical ocassions in the last ten days. For me, that's a better average than anyone can ask for. I always thought weather forecasting was a hit n miss game and everyone was okay with that. Since its the weather you can't or at least didn't expect to be dead on.

But that's not the case. The quality of forecasting at least as experienced by a visitor and non-resident like me is staggering. And for someone who still thinks Bombay could have been saved much of the suffering it endured on July 26, were the forecasts right, its a pity where the rest of the world has reached in this department. Particularly since most of India experiences secular weather patterns which only change three or four times a year.

Good Forecasts Save Lives

Predicting when it will rain and how much is critical not just to office goers in Bombay but people living along flood-prone rivers in eastern India and farmers who want to save their crops elsewhere. I caught Kapil Sibal saying recently the Indian weather prediction system would be overhauled to global standards. Over a Rs 1,000 crore is spent on it, he said.

Clearly, prevention costs less money. That does not mean you trigger so many false alarms that people stop believing it. In which case, we need to spend money first on getting a world class weather forecasting system in place, with the ability to collect and mine data of all sorts (including fog at Delhi airport). Effectively earmarked and budgeted, it will mean a fraction of next year's flood relief which need not be spent (at least in that magnitude). If nothing else, we might save a few more lives.


For more insights, visit my NY page on www.weather.com The software is undoubtedly cool but its the back end with all the real-time data assimilation and mining that makes it fascinating. I hope Kapil Sibal earmarks this and makes it his benchmark.

4 comments:

Global Indian on 11:48 am said...

Nice picture with snow there. When I first came to US, I was amazed at the accuracy of the weather prediction here. Its not just the day they get it right, but even the time. Like, 'its going to snow at 4PM'.

I wish the 1000 crores put into the weather prediction system will give a good system. I remember reading a piece about a weather satellite india launched. It uses canadian weather prediction software. The canadians say the camera on the satellite is not good enough for their system. And our guys say that the software is not good enough. Wonder what we are doing buying software from canadians while we clamour that we are the best in software

Venkat Ramanan on 12:04 pm said...

Hey Govind,
Do you think Weather is the only thing, or one of the things that we need to improve? I guess, that would occupy not a very high priority in the list of our babus and netas.. Anyhow, It would truly benefit us if we were to know accurate weather predictions ... Try this accuweather.com. They have weather predictions across the world, even remote places in India. Comprehensive weather information. I was tracking their information all through when it rained for the past 2 months here in Chennai, and it turned out to be amazingly true, even hour wise... We have lots of lessons to learn from westeners when it comes to enabling people with adequate information to be prepared for the best or the worst!!

SloganMurugan on 12:51 pm said...

Actually, no one cares to listen to Indian weather forecasts even though they have information available. Afterall we dont have 4 seasons in a day.

The Mumbai Met Department is not all that bad. Terrible Tuesday was a freak incident. And even the Americans with all their technology couldn't save New Orleans. Meanwhile in Mumbai, on the days following terible tuesday, I depended on the forecasts from the met dept here in mumbai and they are pretty accurate.

But no one cared to listen or they preferred rumours. Your colleagues in the media added their own spin and creative graphics. (Star news made hay on a rainy day)So the problem has mostly to do with the media and viewers and not just our met dept.

So when you come back to India, pay more attention to the weather report. Maybe you weren't even listening.

Here's an interesting link.
http://www.fallingrain.com/

Rain data from all over the world at ur fingertips; even from your grandfather's gaon.

Pallavi Sureka on 6:04 pm said...

Just thought of this joke when I read your post:

It was autumn, and the Red Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was a Red Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn't tell what the weather was going to be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared.

But also being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked "Is the coming winter going to be cold?"

"It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed," the meteorologist at the weather service responded.

So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. A week later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Is it going to be a very cold winter?"

"Yes," the man at National Weather Service again replied, "It's definitely going to be a very cold winter."

The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find. Two weeks later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

"Absolutely," the man replied. "It's going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

"How can you be so sure?" the Chief asked.

The weatherman replied, "The Red Indians are collecting wood like crazy."

 

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