I have had the singular misfortune of having to brief extremely incisive bosses who like nothing better than to read up about the science of meteorology in their spare time. So while most of my colleagues speak about the weather like a professional spewing wisdom about his field of expertise, I am often made to feel like a rookie answering the viva-voce for his higher degree. I like to believe I have withstood this onslaught steadfastly enough since I still am the weatherman. But seriously, there are possibly fewer places where Nature conspires in almost every way possible to ridicule all streams of Earth Sciences devised by man.
It rains eight months of the year here. That wouldn’t be so bad in itself except that it rains with a ferocity and intensity that are almost frightening. It rains in excess of 3000 mm through the year, every two out of three days. The islands are the first springboard for the South-west monsoon. Well, that isn’t so bad in itself either, except that the arrival of monsoon over the islands is seen as a sign for the onset over the “mainland”. So, you see, no one takes the trouble of forecasting the arrival of the monsoon over the islands per se. That extremely risky (career-wise!) task is left to people like poor li’l me who, as I said before, always have bosses with a nose for the weather and superior intellect to boot.
The other little problem is historical in nature. Some decades ago, when the powers-that-be wished to install a seismograph in the country, the poor seismologists expressed their complete inability to do so for want of a suitable place. This seemingly insurmountable problem was overcome by utilising the premises of the next most convenient branch of Earth Sciences, i.e. meteorology. That was it. The seismologists completely washed their hands off all things ‘tremblor’ in nature and as time passed, a poor meteorologist was usually found ‘quaking’ under the pressure to do a job for which a gleeful seismologist was collecting the salary. But what does this have to do with the islands, you might ask. Just the little fact that the island chain sits astride one of the most seismically active zones on earth – the confluence of the Indian and Burmese microplate. If this fact was clouded in obscurity a few years ago, the mega earthquake and resulting tsunami of Dec 2004 definitely set that right.
Take some time off and study the map of the Bay of Bengal. The first thing that strikes you is that the islands are no more than just a fleeting rash on a model’s face – so vast is the ocean and tiny the islands. The point I’m trying to make is that usual concepts used in forecasting like heating of land, effect of the mountains and topography in general are redundant here since Nature considers the islands no different from the rest of the ocean. Also, their separation from the rest of India (insensitively referred to as “the mainland” by most) has been a bane in that there is a mindset that the islands are not really a part of India and that getting here is almost like going abroad! Consequently, weather observatories along the island chain are thin on the ground and those that do exist, are manned in the listless fashion so typical of government agencies. Data from our own observatories therefore, becomes critical here.
The vagaries of weather in this part of the world affects life in more ways than one can possibly imagine. With over 570 islands, it is natural that most of the inter-island movement is by boats or helicopters – the two modes of transport so overtly affected by weather. You want to play golf, plan a party, water the garden or simply have a laugh, just call up the weatherman. If the price of tomatoes has become unaffordable, it has to be because of the weather. Looking for an excuse for not having done your job? Well, you could try blaming the weather (or the weatherman). It usually works! Oh I am not in the least suggesting that I mind all of this. In fact, I have enjoyed unparalleled attention as a meteorologist on the islands simply because I seem to influence so many major decisions here. But I’d like to put forth a little theory of mine here. I believe there are no ‘bad’ meteorologists. There are the ‘good’ ones all right, who usually get their forecasts right and then there are just meteorologists – since most of them get it wrong anyway! But that does not automatically mean that one should try and become a ‘good’ meteorologist. Being recognised as a ‘good’ weatherman is like a double-edged sword. Let me explain. When they don’t know you, you are simply a (bad) meteorologist. The underdog – from whom there are no expectations. Life is simple. Then you make the folly and get one forecast right. And another! And God forbid! Another..! You are now branded as the ‘good’ weatherman. You are finished – because with every forecast you get right, it changes the way people plan their events. Earlier, they would plan and then ask you for the day’s weather. Now they ask you when they should plan the event! Since most events are attended by rather high-ranking gentlemen, it’s easy to appreciate the risk involved here. Picture the gory scene where the men who planned the event are pointing to the poor ‘good’ weatherman as the VIP is soaking his Sunday best in torrential rain. I shudder even at the thought. So you see the better a weatherman you are, the more are the chances of being slaughtered as a scapegoat. So I make it a point to break the chain of correct forecasts once in a while!
But, all said and done, studying the weather over the isles has been a rewarding experience. I am richer in both, knowledge and experience, humbled and awed by both, Nature’s fury and beauty and most importantly, I actually help people to plan and execute critical tasks – an immensely satisfying feeling. And oh! Did I mention it has made me look up at the sky and thank the Almighty more often?