An Ode to Rain

There is something within me
that is a desert,
a dying plain of cracked mud,
an empty cup
that forever thirsts
for another sip
of rain.
                                                                – Stephanie Rachel Seely, An Ode to Rain

Kalidasa would not have chosen this year to write Meghdoot. The famed southwest monsoon of the Indian subcontinent is at its five year lowest as of June. A strong El Niño is being blamed for such an anomaly, holding back the most beloved weather of the world from us just like it did in 2009. If anyone had asked you about India’s monsoon of the previous year, you may have responded with a satisfactory smile. It was beautiful. The rivers were flowing to the brim and the agricultural production was far better. I’m not sure what the government figures tell, but the farmers of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh were more-or-less happy with the yield if you forgive disease and pest outbreaks in certain regions.

The monsoon of the year 2013 was considered to be the effect of La Niña, a feminized form of a weather condition which leads to cooling in the regions of the Pacific Ocean (originating along the coast of Peru), giving the southwest monsoon its strength to pour heavily upon the subcontinent. La Niña literally means “little girl” in Spanish. In other regions, La Niña gives rise to severe storms and hurricanes or to drought conditions in some parts of South America and East Africa. What is happening this year, or is still being predicted, is that we are facing the backlash of the plenty of the previous year. The fury of La Niña is often followed by the brute of El Niño, meaning “little boy” in Spanish, which is exactly opposite of La Niña. The New Zealand Herald has explained these phenomena well.

Both these climatic events are crucial shapers of the weather of our planet, and are equally responsible to make or break our heart. This year, we are about to face El Niño, that little boy which scientists warned us about many months ago. From the peak of the summer, in April-May months, news of the status and the probability of this weather condition have been in the forefront in media. News report that India will suffer with below-normal rains this year, impacting agriculture and the gold market, as empty clouds streak the sky sullen. No drop of moisture remains in them to make grandeur fallout. Economic Times reports that the rainfall deficit for the country is predicted at 37%, even before El Niño has developed. No rain, no food, no gold.

What causes such a cascade of crashes by a singular event is a solemn thing. Edward N. Lorenz, professor of meteorology, in one of his finest papers, asked: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? More commonly referred today as “the butterfly effect”, this part of the chaos theory says that the smallest change at one place can result in large differences in a later state (Wikipedia: Butterfly Effect). In the words of the author, “if a single flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so also can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species”.

This beautiful poetic assertion of the mathematician-cum-meteorologist is derived from some complex mathematical models run on some complex computers of his time. The relevance of the butterfly effect is quite crucial to understand the weather phenomenon that affects farmers, and the gold markets. What it literally means, and how Lorenz came upon it perchance, is quite interesting. An excerpt from the essay on the butterfly effect from the University College London tells the story:

“[…] in the early 60s Lorenz was doing computer experiments on a 12-dimensional weather model. One day he decided to run a particular time series for longer. In order to save time he restarted his code from data from a previous printout. After returning from a coffee break he found that his weather had diverged sharply from that of his earlier run. After some checks he could only conclude that the difference was caused by the difference in initial conditions: he had typed in only the first three of the six decimal digits the computer worked with internally. Apparently, his assumption that the fourth digit would be unimportant was false.

Lorenz realised the importance of his observation: “If, then, there is any error whatever in observing the present state – and in any real system such errors seem inevitable – an acceptable prediction of an instantaneous state in the distant future may well be impossible.” Indeed, the error made by discarding the fourth and higher digits is so small that it can be imagined to represent the effect of the flap of the wings of a butterfly. In fact, Lorenz originally used the image of a seagull. The more lasting name seems to have come from his address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, 29 December 1972, which was entitled ‘Predictability: does the flap of a butterfly’ wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’.”

In the backdrop of this story, somewhere there is a butterfly flapping its wings, leading El Niño to cause below-normal rainfall in India, leading to rain-fed rivers running dry, impacting agriculture and the agriculture-dependent businesses, and ultimately leading to inflation of food and fuel prices, and, somewhere along the line, leading to a fall in the market for gold, besides leading to a change in the political climate. These events can be predicted, and have been predicted just as Lorenz discovered five decades ago, but Lorenz in his poetic anecdote has told us something far more substantial: the role of the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.

If the rain gods are not happy, it is not because of the flapping of a butterfly, but that of mankind. Collins et al (2010), in their paper “the impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño", say that the mean climate of the tropical Pacific region continue to change in the coming century as a result of past and future projected emissions of greenhouse  gases. Latif and Keenlyside (2009) also show that the equatorial Pacific, during the past half-century has shown a clear warming trend, consistent with global warming. Several models have been run to study the correlation between El Niño and global warming, and all the models have shown different predictions (Wikipedia: El Niño). It is said that it is difficult to predict the relation yet, however some studies show that climate change could double the frequency of super El Niño events (source), and 2014 is just one of the initial pages of a long book written by El Niño with the consent of man.

It is too early to predict the wrath of the rain gods, but it is a sign nonetheless. Fields are parched, and the first round of paddy has failed in many regions across India. Whether you are a believer or not (of god or climate change, you choose), human activities truly reflect on our planet. In other words, one paddle of your bicycle, or a push of the accelerator of your vehicle, can impact our planet’s climate.

You can keep a watch on monsoon of India from the following websites:

Sahyadrica turns six! It was on June 28, 2008 (a fine La Niña year) that I first started with Wanderer’s Eye. I have been refraining from celebrating Sahyadrica’s birthdays for it reminds me of my age. This platform is a part of my life now (and I should accept growing old); it is, after all, a place to see what I see! My primary intention was to separate this blog from any human intervention, and I had almost always abstained from posting pictures of humans, and I continued that stint for almost two years before I had to give in. Earlier it was a blog dedicated solely to nature – mostly for insects and spiders and plants. It was later that I understood the role man plays in nature, of how important it is to keep man in the view of viewing nature.

After six years and 131 articles, Sahyadrica, if not wiser, has cut down on its obsession of hyphens (and will learn to reduce its commas in the next), and has definitely piled information which you have accepted. I thank you all!

I am glad to announce that Sahyadrica will now be displaying works by others. Writers, thinkers who write, philosophers who write, researchers, photographers, poets, and amateur journalists, and those who just love to explore – on the neon-screen, city-streets, or in the wild, will be using this platform to share knowledge – but more importantly, share passion and emotions towards our natural wealth. This is to let you share what you see. Let the world be a part of your eyes, and the world will probably wake up sooner than later.

Currently Sahyadrica does not accept unsolicited material.

1 comment:

  1. Nice one...and congrats to you for maintaining such a wonderful blog..