Amateur weathermen are tackling climate change in India

|     Vidhi Doshi     |

NEW DELHI (WP-BLOOM) – When the skies over the south Indian city of Chennai darken with rain clouds, K Srikanth’s inbox starts to fill up.

The 42-year-old corporate marketing manager moonlights as a weather blogger and is part of a growing community in India, where rainfall is a national concern.

Self-taught bloggers such as Srikanth cater to an increasing demand for forecasts in India, where the weather especially affects daily life. They often go one step beyond official forecasts by India’s meteorological department, using online weather charts and basic instruments to give localised predictions about individual towns and villages.

“Our generation thinks the generic weather alert is not enough,” Srikanth said. “People are going beyond the question ‘Will it rain?’ They want to know ‘When will it rain?’ and ‘How long will it rain for?’ “

As climate change disrupts crop cycles and unleashes extreme weather on the Indian subcontinent, enthusiasts such as Srikanth are amassing huge online followings. With changing weather patterns, the science of forecasting is becoming even more complicated, and self-styled experts compete online to give the most accurate readings. Some become minor celebrities during extreme weather events.

Two pedestrians walk near a shrine in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. – WP-BLOOM

Unpredictable weather in India can influence the stock market, cause public-health crises, change industrial output and disrupt transport networks. The country experiences its share of natural disasters, too; earlier this month, a cyclone hit India’s southern states, killing at least 70 people. In August, floods in the Indian state of Bihar led to more than 500 deaths.

“Weather is such a hot topic in India that everyone wants to have their own opinion,” said Saurabh Bhardwaj, a climate researcher at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

India’s vast agricultural sector employs about 44 per cent of the country’s workforce. About 65 per cent of India’s farmland is rain-fed, and farmers desperately need reliable forecasting. They often take out loans to buy seed, and water scarcity or floods cause huge losses and threaten the country’s food supply.

With so much at stake, successive governments have invested in the country’s weather forecasting infrastructure and tried to improve predictions. The National Monsoon Mission, launched in 2013, brings together scientists and experts from around the world to estimate rainfall. Multimillion-dollar supercomputers are being installed in India’s weather laboratories to improve forecast models. But despite gradual improvements, official forecasts are sweeping and inexact. Srikanth and other bloggers receive hundreds of messages from people asking him to predict weather patterns for specific areas.

The coastal city of Chennai, where Srikanth lives, is especially prone to rainfall and cyclones in the fall and winter months.

“People want to know when to schedule marriages or office parties, whether to delay cricket matches, whether to travel on certain dates,” he said.

India’s amateur forecasters are not formally trained in meteorology. Still, many people rely on individual blogs or Facebook pages that have built reputations after years of forecasting. “U r a gr8 help” reads a message Srikanth received from one reader of his Chennai Rains blog, which he manages with two other people. Another reader invited the Chennai Rains team to his wedding.

Weather wonks such as Srikanth are scattered around India. In the financial hub of Mumbai, 64-year-old retired businessman Rajesh Kapadia has become a local hero for the predictions on his blog, Vagaries of the Weather. Kapadia’s passion for meteorology started when his father gave him a wall-mounted thermometer as a teenager. At first, people mocked his weather obsession. “They thought I was a madman looking at clouds,” he said.

In the northern Indian city of Rohtak, 16-year-old Navdeep Dahiya sends local farmers WhatsApp and Facebook weather alerts while studying for school exams. Dahiya describes 2014 as his “golden year” – it was the year he went on a school trip to the India Meteorological Department. “I saw how farmers are helped by the weather,” he said. “I saw how they use all these gadgets to predict weather.”

Dahiya soon set up his own weather station at home; he has thermometers, an automatic rain gauge and a digital screen. Now known as Rohtak Weatherman, Dahiya sends out weather reports in Hindi and gets phone calls from farmers in the region asking for predictions.

“I don’t know how this passion was created in me,” said Dahiya, who hopes to run a weather-related company one day. “I’m crazy about it.”

For Srikanth, the variety of voices in the weather blogging world adds to its lure. “None of us are trained meteorologists, and there are differences in how we understand the scene,” he said. “That’s the fun with weather blogging. There are IT guys, marketing guys, college students; the diversity is the strength of the community.”