The weather mart

Met department is not the only one predicting weather in India. Forecasts are now sold by businesses to businesses

Published: Friday 31 July 2009

The weather mart

Archita Bhatta and Rohini Rangarajan

Met department is not the only one predicting weather in India. Forecasts are now sold by businesses to businesses

Down to Earth
Photograph by Meeta Ahlawat
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At the peak of summer weathermen in Pune sat down to predict when the monsoon will hit India and how much rainfall it will bring. They fed data into forecast models, and out came the result rainfall will be 96 per cent of the normal, they announced on April 17. But in June the country received only 57 per cent of the normal rainfall for the month.

The government-run India Meteorological Department (imd) in its internal communication had said the June rainfall would be considerably less than normal, yet neither imd nor farmers across the country expected it to be so low. "The last time such a low rainfall was recorded in June was in 1926," said D S Pai, scientist at imd Pune who is in charge of forecasts.

On June 24, imd modified its forecast, saying the monsoon will be 93 per cent of the normal. Its scientists said their earlier forecast followed statistical probability that relies on historical data, not the prevailing weather conditions, to predict the trend. They did suspect that El Nino, a periodic weather anomaly, and heavy snowing in Eurasia would play spoilsport. But, according to Pai, two things happened in May that took them by surprise Aila cyclone hit West Bengal and western disturbance hit north India. Aila took away a large part of the moisture in the air and western disturbance brought drizzle cooling down the northern parts of the country. This weakened the monsoon, said the scientist.

Is weather forecast on the basis of historical data relevant any longer? Research shows trends of decreasing rainfall in June and July (see 'Monsoon earlyburly', Down to Earth, May 16-31, 2009). "We try to take the results from 10 dynamical forecast models, and often each model gives a different version of the weather," said Pai. "Unsure of the results we settle for the age old statistical model." Dynamical models take into account weather conditions like cloud movement and humidity.

Several imd scientists, who do not want to be named, say dynamical models are not reliable because they are not customized to Indian conditions. These models also need regular updates, which require research. imd scientists complained that though such research is happening in organizations like the National Centre for Medium Range Forecasting, iits, Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, there is not enough interaction between the researchers and forecasters.

"There is almost a caste-like division among meteorological researchers in other organizations and forecasters in imd. So much so they do not publish in same journals," said an imd scientist. "Interaction is limited to seminars."

imd is not very happy about its seasonal predictions meant for the government to formulate its agricultural strategies. But it is confident about its medium- and short-range forecasts given five days and one day ahead respectively.

Enter the private forecaster
Knowing which way the wind blows--or does not--is not left to imd any more. Over the past six years a clutch of companies in India has entered the business of predicting and recording the weather every day, every hour, every 10 minutes. It depends on how frequently the client wants the data. These companies cater to the specialized needs of increasingly competitive sectors like power.

Down to Earth When sudden rain and thunderstorm brought down the temperature in Delhi a few notches on May 30 and air conditioners were switched off, distribution companies supplied considerably less power that evening, when demand usually peaks. Had North Delhi Power Limited (ndpl), a joint venture of the Tatas, not known in advance about the rain and thunderstorm, it would have lost between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 8 lakh.

Distribution companies buy power from generating companies a day in advance. So they have to estimate the demand for the next day. A sudden change in temperature can upset their calculations. Power distribution companies, therefore, make it their business to know what the weather is going to be like.

Delhi-based Skymet supplies customized weather data to ndpl and Reliance Infrastructure Limited, also a power distribution company. It started with a turnover of Rs 18 lakh in 2003 and today has a turnover of Rs 1.4 crore. Kanpur-based Weather Risk Management Services provides localized weather data to companies from its automatic weather stations installed in several places. The company helps compute weather-based insurance packages for farmers and calculates risk to crops from weather anomalies. Skymet even calls itself a "complete weather store". Weather forecasts are no longer confined to free-of-cost predictions by imd.

The profit or loss of many other businesses depends on how accurately these companies predict the weather. The companies are penalized for every weather forecast that goes wrong. In case of temperature, for example, the margin of error allowed is one degree.

"We are paying a private weather company for accurate forecast data because this data could prevent losses of up to Rs 20 lakh," Jayanta Chatterjee, assistant general manager of ndpl, said. "The price of one unit of power can vary from Rs 1.5 per unit to Rs 15 per unit depending on the demand. We calculate the power required for the next day based on that forecast and buy the power when the demand is still low."

Between May 28 and May 30, the maximum temperature in Delhi fell from 41C to 35C. The cost of a unit of power also fell from Rs 5.5 to Rs 1.08. "Weather conditions play a vital role in demand forecasting," a Reliance Infrastructure official explained.

Being forewarned about the weather also helps prepare for contingencies. When Power Grid Corporation, a public transmission utility, learnt of the high probability of fog last winter through Skymet, it hired helicopters to clean the transmission lines. This helped prevent tripping caused by a combination of fog and pollution. Fog in the presence of pollutants on surface of insulators provides an alternate low resistance path which causes flashovers and tripping of transmission lines.

Power Grid Corporation cleaned up the transmission lines intermittently between November 2008 and February 2009 when heavy fog had been predicted. The cost of cleaning came to Rs 8.2 crore, but it saved the business.

The survival of several other businesses is closely linked to advance warnings regarding the weather. Oil rigs, for example. Skymet provides Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ongc) forecast for their off-shore rigs. "Along with surface weather parameters we track sea weather--wave, swell, gust, wind--for the oil company," said Jatin Singh, managing director of Skymet. The rigs have to be shut down if there is a cyclone. Otherwise, they may catch fire. Besides, ships ply to and from the rigs transporting oil; the company needs weather data to ensure the safety of these ships.

Some wind energy companies too have started buying weather data from private forecasting companies.

Check the cost  
  • Current weather data Rs 12,000 - Rs 1,20,000 per year
  • Forecast data Rs 14 lakh - Rs 18 lakh per year
  • Forecast package for media Rs 18 lakh
  • Daily forecasts for power distribution companies Rs 14 lakh a year (Penalty for each inaccurate forecast beyond a certain percentage is Rs 2-3. There are 400 such forecasts per day.)
  • Wind pattern analysis for wind farms Rs 2-3 lakh, one time (Putting up a facility to analyse the wind at a place would cost Rs 6 lakh and one will have to wait for two years for the results.)

For setting up wind farms companies require data on wind speed, direction and pattern at the site. This helps them calculate how much energy a wind turbine will be able to generate.

"Earlier we were getting these data from imd and Structural Engineering Research Centre in Chennai. Now with more wind farms being set up, the 400 wind monitoring stations of imd are not sufficient," said A Raja Sukumar, vice-president, Indowind Energy, a Chennai-based company that produces wind energy. Private companies can analyse wind pattern quicker by combining imd information with satellite data.

For other businesses, like weather-based crop insurance, the companies set up automatic weather stations, thus, increasing weather coverage. These stations mainly consist of sensors mounted on a pole. In contrast to manual weather stations, automatic weather stations can measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction and rainfall every hour and send the data to computers via cable or satellite.

Automatic weather stations
Companies like National Collateral Management Services Limited (ncmsl) specialize in setting up automatic weather stations. The company was launched in 2004 with the support of several banks like hdfc, Bank of India and Canara Bank; iffco and the National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange to provide farmers with warehousing and certificate of crop quality so that they can get low-interest credit from banks. In 2004, weather-based crop insurance was introduced in India. The next year ncmsl diversified and started setting up automatic weather stations.

Srinivas Rao, vice-president, ncmsl, said the company has set up 400 weather stations across 16 states in India. It charges between Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,000 per month for the data. For data to be supplied every 10 minutes, the price is the highest Rs 10,000 per month.

"When a company wants data for a particular place we set up stations only if an imd station is not there. We complement the imd," said Rao, who imports these stations from the US. Each automatic weather station costs between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 1.5 lakh, depending on the type of data required. But ingen, a sister company of Weather Risk Management and Services, prefers to build its own stations, which comes to Rs 25,000 each.

There are 1,200 privately set up weather stations in India, and the number is increasing. Rao has orders to set up 50 more stations within July.

icici Bank's weather-based crop insurance scheme works around weather stations. "We buy weather data like temperature, rainfall, wind speed and wind direction from imd and private companies like ncmsl and ingen as these help us verify our claims," said Aditya Jain of icici -Rural that provides crop insurance in 15 states. Once the weather conditions cross or fall short of laid down parameters for a crop, the farmer can raise a claim.

icici Bank has grape cultivators in Maharashtra's Pune-Sangli-Nashik belt as clients. Grape farmers choose the crop phases they want to cover and also the location of weather station used for calculating the claim. They get weather updates from the forecasters the bank subscribes to. India's farmers are still not direct clients of private forecasters.

Increasing unpredictability of weather is another reason private forecasters are flourishing, Anuj Khambhat, director of Weather Risk Management and Services, believes. "More farmers are availing of insurance because of frequent crop loss due to frequent changes in weather," he said. Insurance firms, therefore, need more weather stations.

Pie in the sky
Around the time weather-based crop insurance gained ground, another boom was happening in the sky. News, it was being discovered, can be as marketable as soap operas. By 2005 all major satellite television broadcasters had at least one 24-hour news channel, and they were falling over one another to jazz things up. Weather was an important element of news in private channels, geared as they were to cater to changing consumer preferences in India. Fog-related information, for example, gained prominence during winter as the consumer was keen to know if it affected flight timings.

Weather forecasting companies saw an opportunity in the emerging news channel market. Attractively packaged weather-related data fetched good business. Viewers were not complaining as there were a lot more maps and graphics compared to what they were used to in the days when there was only Doordarshan. Today 70 per cent of the business generated by weather forecasting companies comes from media houses--both television and print.

"We take weather forecasts from private companies because it comes as a map with graphics, which is more suitable to us," said a Zee News executive. "There is less hassle in packaging the information at our end."

If packaging drove media companies from imd to private weather forecasting companies, power distribution companies switched mainly because private forecasters provided data more frequently. India certainly needs to improve forecasting infrastructure.

imd's modernization plan includes increasing the density of its automatic weather stations. In 2007-08, the Centre sanctioned a Rs 950-crore plan, under which 550 automatic weather stations, 55 Doppler radars for data on clouds, and 3,600 rain gauges will be installed across the country. Of these, 125 automatic weather stations have been set up.

But even these installations will not be enough. An imd official said regional changes are so palpable that every district needs at least four stations, which means a total of about 25,000 stations. "At present, we have installations at a distance of 100 km each. But we definitely need more," A B Majumdar, scientist at imd Pune, said.

Score points
  IMD Private forecasters
Ground observation stations 525 1,200
Weather balloons 39 None
Doppler radars (for studying clouds and wind) 5 None
Microwave sounders (for temperature, humidity) None, but planned None
Satellite data Get in real time Get at intervals
Historical data Of 100 years No data
Research support Can approach government institutes No such system
Forecast models Statistical and dynamical models Dynamical models
Packaging Poor Good
Customized service Do not provide Available
Information update Observations every hour. Forecasts thrice a day for the next day Observations every 10 minutes. Forecasts every 15 minutes for next day

With more companies entering the business of weather forecasting there are fears of weather forecasting gradually turning into a paid service altogether--the US came close to privatizing its public weather forecaster in the early 1980s. The mention of increasing private business to imd officials tends to get their hackles up. For forecasting one needs historical data and current observations, Majumdar explained. "Nobody has either the infrastructure to record as many observations as imd or the historical data," he said (see Score points).

"Accuracy depends on infrastructure. If somebody is claiming that he is giving better predictions than imd, he is lying," said another official. At the same time, he added, while general forecasting is imd's responsibility, private agencies would do a better job of providing customized forecast data.

The growth of the private industry can, however, spur imd to upgrade its services. The World Meteorological Organisation says "no single government or agency has the necessary resources to address all the challenges on its own". It encourages public forecasters to work with international agencies, other organizations, academia, the media and the private sector to improve the range and quality of critical environmental information and services. At the same time capabilities of the national weather forecaster need to be upgraded since with changing weather pattern India's millions of farmers will need free forecasts more than ever before.

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