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Balloon scarcity hits weather forecasting

Balloon scarcity hits weather forecasting
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First Published: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 58 PM IST

Updated: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 58 PM IST
New Delhi: Scientists at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), charged with critical monsoon prediction models, are complaining that a shortage of hydrogen balloons—used for measuring wind speeds and temperature—is triggering severe gaps in the data, thereby affecting the overall accuracy of their models.
The shortage comes two years after IMD became part of a new ministry and got a Rs920 crore modernization plan.
Scientists at IMD and its associated research institutes say that, since then, financial controls have become tighter, promised research equipment isn’t reaching them and, coupled with a tardy workforce, this is threatening the accuracy of Indian weather forecasts.
Some scientists also say that the balloon shortage only underscores a larger crisis within IMD: an increasingly hawkish bureaucracy, which, they allege, insists on stricter financial controls.
“IMD was supposed to breathe a new lease of life after a new ministry (ministry of earth sciences) was formed for it. However, the finance departments of the organization have become far stricter with releasing funds for research,” said?a?meteorologist?connected with one of IMD’s autonomous research laboratories who didn’t want to be identified.
P.K.?Jain, director, IMD (upper air instruments), who is in charge of the balloon network, agrees that there is a shortage of balloons. “This is a routine problem. However, there have been some delays in getting the balloons from our suppliers, Pawan Rubber Industries and GEMCO in Maharashtra.”
Mint couldn’t immediately reach the two companies for comment or independently confirm if the problem is with the two companies.
While Jain admits that financial controls have also become stricter, he emphasizes that they are part of teething troubles in the formation of a new ministry.
“For procuring the balloons, we usually demanded three quotations from the suppliers. Now we need four, and, sometimes, several months elapse before the balloons actually reach the observatories. But, matters are under control. It’s a new ministry and such things crop up,” said Jain.
Meanwhile, four supercomputers for climate change modelling to be acquired by IMD are still stuck for want of financial clearance.
Though tenders for the computer were placed last May, the machines are yet to reach the designated institutions—the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, Hyderabad; the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune; National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, Noida and National Climate Centre, Pune.
“I am tired of waiting for the machines, so I’ve decided to go in for private funding and international grants,” claims an IITM meteorologist, requesting anonymity.
Technical bids for the machines were approved by a committee earlier this year, confirmed N. Balakrishnan, associate director of the Indian Institute of Science, and a member of the technical evaluation committee, “but I’ve no idea what’s happening now,” the professor added.
“After technical bids, there are price bids, then there are price negotiation committees,” said minister for earth sciences, Kapil Sibal. “Now, if I cut bureaucracy, the media will accuse the ministry of being non-transparent,” he added, but couldn’t give a final date on when the machines would be procured.
As for the balloons, IMD’s observatories, scattered across the country, are a vital part of its data gathering network that includes 62 Pilot Balloon Observatories (PBO) and 39 Radiosonde Observatories (RO). PBOs fly balloons and measure wind speeds only up to 5km in the atmosphere, while ROs fly balloon-carried sensors to an altitude of 30-35km.
PBOs are expected to launch balloons, each of which costs around Rs1,000, two-four times a day and ROs, which can measure pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speeds, twice a day. These data are fed into supercomputers, which generate daily and weekly forecasts.
Since last year, IMD has extensively been depending on “dynamical” monsoon models that simulate the day’s weather on a computer. Unlike statistical models that rely solely on historical data, these can create a predictive virtual weather map, that can be extrapolated over the next few days. Though effective, they need frequent, updated weather data.
“But several observatories are irregular with their measurements,” said a senior IMD scientist, requesting anonymity. “And, many centres don’t take their observations at all.”
Introducing dynamical models in its annual weather forecast, IMD last year, predicted the overall monsoon to be 95% of the Long Period Average, but the country ended up with an excessive 105% largely due to excessive rainfall in the south peninsula.
It will, for this year’s prediction, continue to use dynamical models, according to an official statement. Sibal attributes the tighter controls to a ministry that is still coming to terms with professionalism.
“IMD never had to procure so many expensive machines, so quickly,” he said. “They are not used to the pace that requires them to be far more efficient. But we have things in place, and 2009 should be the year of change.”
Meanwhile, India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change is due in June and scores of weather modelling studies are set to be commissioned.
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First Published: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 58 PM IST