Within a fortnight of the super cyclone Amphan leaving a trail of destruction and loss of lives in Bengal and Assam along the east coast in May, another cyclone Nisarga developed on the west coast that had been building up for the arrival of the monsoon. This new trend of increased pre-monsoon cyclonic activity in the Indian Ocean region, experts believe, is an indication of the ‘above normal sea level’ surface temperatures as well as increased cyclonic activity during this period.
Both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea have been witnessing such ‘above normal’ cyclonic activity, or ‘cyclogenesis’, in the past two years and experts attribute this to the prevailing abnormally warm ocean temperatures. While it was noticed earlier that cyclonic activity happened during the post-monsoon period in the Arabian Sea, that trend seems to be changing of late. This could also be because of the above mentioned abnormally warm ocean temperatures.
The ocean temperature in the Bay of Bengal was between 30 degrees C and 32, and prior to Nisarga the Arabian Sea also recorded 30-32 degrees C. Interestingly the first severe post-monsoon cyclone to be recorded in the Arabian Sea was Nilofar and that was in 2014. The next year, two storms of the same category, Chapla and Megh, struck one after the other. Five years later, in 2019, also two storms struck the region, Kyarr and Maha.
Cyclone Amphan left a trail of 80 dead in Bengal and over 45 lakh affected in neighbouring Odisha. This was also the cyclone whose damage the Prime Minister and the Bengal Chief Minister together did an aerial survey together to assess. This was the strongest storm to have struck the east coast after the super cyclone of 1999 that destroyed Paradip port in Odisha.
Cyclones, according to experts, gain their energy and traction from the heat and moisture generated from the warm ocean surfaces. This year the Bay of Bengal logged the maximum summer temperatures. This could be due to the cumulative fallout of that arch villain, global warming, and also due to fossil fuel emissions. These have been heating up the oceans for a quite a while.
The lifespan of a cyclone also lasts from two to three weeks depending on the heat energy that it has gathered from its sources. Experts also believe climate change increases the damage caused by cyclones and the higher sea temperatures make these more powerful and lead to increase in rainfall during the storm. These have a cascading effect, with the sea levels rising and increasing the distance inland storm surges reach. Earlier mangroves and inland water bodies had served as the perfect buffer that minimised and softened the impact of nature’s fury, but all these have been destroyed to make way for unbridled urban development that has not taken into consideration any of these factors. Thus dense coastal cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai and even those away from the coast like Bengaluru and Hyderabad are often at the mercy of heavy rains and floods. Kerala had just been through the ordeal of two successive years of deluge that caused much damage and loss of lives.
Meanwhile, Nisarga that intensified into a severe cyclonic storm and began to make its landfall along western coast, threatening Mumbai and forcing evacuation of tens of thousands of people, petered off at the last minute.
Heavy rains and winds gusting up to 120 km per hour as a category 4 cyclone had lashed the coastal city of Alibag, 98 km south of Mumbai before the build-up. At least 100,000 people, including coronavirus patients, had been moved to safer locations.
According to reports Nisarga is the worst cyclone to hit the region in more than 70 years. And this also threatens to worsen prospects for an earlier economic turnaround as the nine-week lockdown began to ease. And the largest container port, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, on the outskirts, had been ordered to shut for at least 24 hours.
Predictably, or not so predictably, the cyclone gave Mumbai a wide berth and veered off course and headed for the Gujarat coast, before vanishing altogether. Despite the best of equipment predicting the storm or cyclone is a dicey thing. The cyclone had come to the two western states when they were grappling with the higher incidence of cornonavirus and casualties and the government machinery had been stretched to the limit.
Cyclones had also quite often given the slip to Mumbai, though every year during the monsoon’s heavy rains of the June-September season roads get submerged, and the suburban train service that is the city’s lifeline, comes to a grinding halt.
Mumbai has rarely faced the impact of cyclones - the last one to hit the city was way back in 1948 that killed 12 people and injured over 100.
Cyclones formed in the Bay of Bengal side of the north Indian Ocean are more frequent and stronger than those on the Arabian Sea and meteorologists suggest the relatively cold waters of the latter discourage the kind of very strong cyclones. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have been facing the brunt of these cyclones every year.
Last year though, it was slightly unusual as the Arabian Sea saw the most frequent and intense cyclonic activity in more than 100 years, according to the India Meteorological Department. That year five cyclones originated in the area, Vayu, Hikka, Kyarr, Maha and Pavan, whereas normally only one or two were formed.
Cyclone behaviour seems almost like cricket matches where every run or wicket is one that sets some record or the other.
According to poet Seamus Heaney the mystery of his first sense of crafting words was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast; Dogger, Rockall, Malim, Shetland. Names of cyclones also seem to follow the same pattern of sprung rhythms, Vayu, Hikka, Kyarr. The naming of the cyclones have been adhering to a carefully thought out procedure, and not following Gerald Manley Hopkin's sprung rhythms. While Bangladesh had suggested the name Fani that hit Odisha in 2019 the naming of other cyclones had begun as early as 2000 according to a formula that was agreed upon four years later. According to this the coming cyclones would be named Gati by India, Niyar by Iran, Taukae by Myanmar and Yaas by Oman. These have been done to help the scientific community and disaster management agencies to identify the cyclones and create awareness and issue suitable warnings.
For the country and the world at large grappling with the effects of the virus that has shown our utter helplessness, these cyclones are a grim reminder of the forces that control nature and human behaviour. Despite all the advances we still cannot predict the weather, or the arrival of the monsoon, leave alone major disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima where the Japanese had built a nuclear reactor that created a disaster of multiple dimensions.
In his book Chasing the Monsoon, written in the sixties, Alexander Frater, who passed away a month back, describes the work done by some ICS officers in the previous century. He writes, ‘In 1874 Herman Kisch, the 23-year-old son of a London surgeon, was given charge of an area of 198 square miles. ‘When my establishment is complete I shall have under me three clerks, 12 sub-superintendents and 24 messengers I am supposed to make myself personally acquainted with every village. On one that I listed the condition of the villagers was such that I thought it necessary to have them fed on the spot with cooked food. It is impossible to describe the condition of some of the children; after what I saw there I can really conceive a skeleton from an anatomical museum being able to walk.’
Within a fortnight of his arrival, exhausting the relay of horses and elephants on which he kept charging about, he had erected 15 storehouses for grain and dragooned 15,000 able bodied villagers into emergency relief projects. In the space of only a few weeks they built five dams, 40 reservoirs, designed to hold water the year around. And four huge government warehouses each able to accommodate several million rupees worth of grain. That optimism paid off. The monsoon arrived in early June and soon everyday carts were arriving laden with rice and obliging ‘to run about like mad to see it stored.’ He and other young ICS officers fought like tigers to save lives. Each death was a personal affront. Their work, largely forgotten now, remains a triumph of humanitarian engineering and one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on India by the British.’
Edward Luce, the Financial Times correspondent, in his book In Spite of the Gods, recalls a similar instance;
I was at lunch with Sanjoy Dasgupta, a senior IAS officer, at the Bangalore Club, when something unusual happened; he burst into tears and remained in that state for several minutes. He had been telling me about Captain Thomas Munn, a British district collector who in the late nineteenth century had apparently transformed the lives of hundreds of parched villagers in a nearby district. Riding on horseback almost continuously for years Munn had covered vast tracts of the southern countryside in search of the best places to sink wells. Even today over a century later, local villagers still celebrate his legacy leaving small offerings at the wells he had sunk. In the late 1990s Dasgupta took the same job as that of Munn. So moved was he by the affection in which the long-dead official was held that he set about finding Munn’s gravestone. Having located it and cleaned it up, he invited his predecessor’s descendants and a representative from the former military regiment to a small commemoration in Bangalore. ‘The love and dedication the man showed to the poor villagers should be an inspiration to us all’, Dasgupta said. ‘He died serving them’. Then he started to cry.
There must be some officers and even ordinary people working in this vast country doing such silent work, feeding the poor, wiping the tears of these helpless people.
THE FACTS AND VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE WRITER