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How El Niño plans to hijack monsoon 2015

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ICP_El_Nino_monsoon_20150526_sm

Whether the monsoon starts off on time, whether the June, July, August and September rainfall averages are met, and whether the seasonal pattern of the monsoon is maintained are expectations that must now be set aside.

According to the Climate Prediction Center’s ENSO probability forecast, there is a 90% chance that El Niño conditions will prevail through June to August of the northern hemisphere and a more than 80% percent chance El Niño will last throughout all of 2015.

What this means, especially when record warm global atmospheric temperatures (because we in South Asia and our neighbours in East Asia have continued burned coal as if the resulting CO2 and soot simply doesn’t exist) are being set, is the remaining months of 2015 – the monsoon period included – will bring strange, dangerous and extreme weather. We have already seen that over the last week, with the death toll from the heat wave having crossed 550.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences El Niño/La Nina, Indian Ocean Dipole Update (10 May 2015)

The Ministry of Earth Sciences El Niño/La Nina, Indian Ocean Dipole Update (10 May 2015)

For the first time since 1998 – ­the year of the strongest El Niño on record, which played havoc with the world’s weather patterns and was blamed for 23,000 deaths worldwide – ­ocean temperatures in all five El Niño zones have risen above 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal at the same time. That is read by climatologists and ocean scientists as presaging an El Niño that is moderately strong to strong. The forecast models updated in May are now unanimous that El Niño is going to keep strengthening through the rest of 2015. (See also the official forecast from the USA’s government climate science agency.)

El Niño’s home is in the tropical eastern Pacific, but we in India need to watch the waters to our south very closely. New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience has examined records going back to 1950 and noticed that Indian Ocean absorbed heat at a low level until 2003. Thereafter, the excess oceanic heat in the Pacific Ocean found its way through the Indonesian archipelago and into the Indian Ocean. This is the gigantic reservoir of watery heat that is going to dictate terms to our summer monsoon, or what our school textbooks call the south-west monsoon.

It is a worry for the entire South Asian region – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Burma, Afghanistan and Bhutan. That is why when the Forum on Regional Climate Monitoring-Assessment-Prediction for Asia (FOCRA) issued its seasonal outlook for June to August 2015 it predicted weaker than normal Indian summer and East Asian monsoons. Precipitation over land is influenced by external factors such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (the ENSO), the ‘Indian Ocean Dipole’, the ‘Arctic Oscillation’, and so on.

There may be a “timely onset” of the monsoon, as the venerable IMD is used to saying, but that doesn’t mean our troubles are over. Far from it.

South Asia’s boring club

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RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_india3Next year will be the 30th since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed. Its career as an association has since the mid-eighties been neither distinguished nor even promising. The countries of the region, viewing the emerging tides of multi-lateralism elsewhere (especially in Latin America) and viewing the debris of the non-aligned movement, shuffled together to form SAARC. The group has all the equipment – a secretariat, various centres that profess to tackle common subjects, a stable of professionals who advise bored officials, and so on – but has produced little.

Some of the blame for such a desultory career must lie with the relations between Pakistan and India, which every other month swing between ‘hostile’ and ‘concerned’ but rarely tread any other territory. Still, that ought not to have weighed so heavily on the other members of SAARC – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan. The accoutrements of SAARC should have served them just as well, but have simply not been used.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_bangladesh_bhutan3This is the greyish and uninspiring background to the 18th SAARC summit this week in Kathmandu, Nepal. The script of this one, as with so many others before it, has followed the same desultory trajectory. The leaders of Pakistan and India say they will meet cordially, formally and informally, and dutifully repeat all that has been said (but not done) from the previous 17 summits and numerous non-summit SAARC meetings.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_ceylon3Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan announced that peace and stability is what the region needs, that the summit participants want to make SAARC a strong trading and economic bloc, and that the region will prosper through better security and economic cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced that the development of close relations with neighbouring countries is a key priority for his government, that greater regional integration at all levels of socio-economic development is important, and that the participants would seek concrete outcomes.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_pakistan3Few, other than the most committed followers of South Asian diplomatic prose, pay much attention. The economic globalisation of the last decade especially has linked countries – within South Asia and outside – with bilateral agreements rather than through multi-lateral fora like SAARC. Even where the association has invested some collective funds (in the creation of specialist centres for example, and the endowment of study and research programmes meant to benefit neighbours) the outcomes have been close to invisible.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_smThis poor showing has not deterred the countries from announcing yet another new SAARC centre which will merge four existing regional centres – the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (in India), the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (in the Maldives), the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (in Bangladesh) and the SAARC Forestry Centre (in Bhutan). The suspicion, not unfounded, is that SAARC and its colourless apparatus exists to provide convenient sinecures for ex-diplomats from the eight countries and their colleagues.

Of course, the “meetings on the sidelines”, over which some mild interest is mustered pertaining to SAARC, may lead to a front page headline or two, but in the balance, that occasional fillip is hardly worth the expense of maintaining the club.

[Sections from maps are, top to bottom, (1) From ‘Madras, Mysore and Goa’, in Constable’s 1893 Hand Atlas; (2) from ‘India, Afghanistan, Belochistan, Burmah, and Siam’ by John Bartholomew; from ‘Zell’s Descriptive Hand Atlas of the World’, Philadelphia, 1873; (3) from ‘Southern India and Ceylon’ in ‘Letts’s Popular Atlas’ 1883; (4) from ‘India’ by Edward Weller, for the Weekly Dispatch Magazine, 1859. Click here for a sheet of them all (jpg, 772kb).]