Climate Change

Changing character of cyclones

Fani teaches us that the future is even more risked and even more unpredictable than we imagined. It is time we woke up to this reality

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 15 May 2019
Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra

A horrific tropical cyclone making landfall in the midst of election cacophony is not a good idea. It captures headlines briefly and makes for good politics — who did what and who did not. But the fact is that the impacts of Cyclone Fani, which devastated large parts of Odisha and then hit West Bengal and Bangladesh, have not gone away. It has left behind a trail of massive destruction. But what needs to be acknowledged in this tragedy is that there were far less fatalities than ever before.

The incredible efforts of scientists, who predicted the path, and the state administration of Odisha — which ensured over a million people were evacuated — deserve praise. The state lost 10,000 people in the 1999 super cyclone. This time, even when wind speeds reached 204 kilometre per hour, the loss of human life was contained to 41. This is no small feat.

However, what we need to understand is what Fani means in an increasingly climate-risked world. Every time there is a similar natural disaster, attribution is made to climate change. And every time, there is a pushback, with climate sceptics arguing that there have always been cyclones. But emerging climate models predict increasing intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones. The logic is fairly clear: As oceans warm, there is more moisture and ocean storms will build up to lash the land with devastating wind and rain.

Sceptics will say there is no absolute count, over time, to show that the number of tropical storms have increased. There is some change, but the timescale is not long enough to account the difference. The 2018 Climate Assessment by the World Meteorological Organization found tropical storms in the Northern Hemisphere were up from 63 in the previous year to 74 in 2018; and were roughly the same, 22, in the Southern Hemisphere. So, if you want, at your risk, you could argue that storms will come and go. Why blame climate change? 

The fact is that there is a big difference, as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is finding out. These storms have become increasingly and crazily unpredictable. In recent years, IMD had nearly perfected the science of cyclone forecast, but now it is learning, in real time, to change its methods and to advance its technology to keep pace with this erratic creature of the oceans.

The first shock was Ockhi — which hit the Kerala coast in late 2017 and took away many lives. Ockhi transformed from a deep depression to a cyclonic storm in a matter of six hours. We must realise then that the failure to predict and warn was not just human. It was because of the unnatural characteristics — never seen before — of such a tropical storm. It changed direction; it gathered steam when least expected; and, became more intense and more virulent at speeds never seen before. One reason for this changing “nature” of the storm, as scientists later found, was the intense heat pockets in the ocean, which changed the direction and speed of the cyclone.

This time, IMD was prepared. They used even more sophisticated equipment and improved their prediction models with this learning. But the speed of change is so rapid that this learning of 2017 was already outdated. Fani intensified from severe to very severe in no time; it also made landfall much ahead of schedule.

Then, Fani moved inland — it reached Bhubaneshwar — and there it did not weaken in its wind speed. This is surprising as storms need moisture on land to gather intensity and to lash the land with rain. It is peak summer now — a time when ocean storms never hit in any case. How did it move inland? Why? How can we predict in the future?

Fani tells us many things: one, we must invest in the science of weather and in our governance capacity. Two, we must not count the number of tropical storms to conclude whether the world is risked or not. But most importantly, Fani teaches us that the future is even more risked and even more unpredictable than we imagined. It is time we woke up to this reality. 

There is no time to lose.

(This editorial will appear in Down To Earth's Print Edition dated 16-31 May, 2019)

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