“Weather-ing the Storms”


Dr Mrutyunjaya Mohapatra, Director General, IMD

How many people could think unorthodox about their careers while still in their teens? Dr Mrutyunjaya Mohapatra, the incumbent director of Indian Meteorological Department could think different when folks of his ilk were chasing dreams to get into the hallowed portals of IITs and IIMs. A devastating cyclone that wrecked India’s coast back in 1971, leaving a trail of destruction, left such a lasting imprint on a callow child’s mind that he decided to pursue weather science, chucking traditional and lucrative career streams. And he made that decision when he was just six! His undying passion has today catapulted him to be the boss of IMD, the ultimate bankable agency for weather forecasts.
Dr Mohapatra received international recognition for accurately predicting the path of the ferocious cyclonic storm Phailin that hit Orissa’s coast in 1999. During his tenure as head of the IMD’s cyclone division, Dr Mohapatra has seen over 40 cyclones. ‘I’m responsible for motivating colleagues and minimizing loss of life and property,’ says Dr Mohapatra.
For his research and service in atmospheric sciences, Dr Mohapatra has received many national and international awards, including the Young Scientist Award from the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Achievers Award from the IMD.

Under his leadership, IMD has calibrated an Action Plan to grapple with intense heat waves that have increased in frequency due to the worldwide Global Warming.
“Heat action plan is prepared by concerned state authorities in association with NDMA and IMD. Urban heat island effect is another reason apart from the general heat wave over a region. There is a heat wave warning system by IMD. Temperature forecasts are issued every day, for the next five days, at meteorological subdivisions and district levels, by the national weather forecasting centre and state level meteorological centres. Heat wave conditions, whenever expected, are flagged through this warning system”, he says.
He is aware of the devastating impact of cyclones on lives and properties and is a votary of investing on cyclone preparedness plans.

“There is enormous loss of lives and property due to cyclones. Consider the super cyclone that hit Odisha 20 years back, when about 10,000 people died and there was complete devastation in coastal and interior areas. A modernization programme was taken up in 2007 by IMD to modernize weather forecasting and cyclonic system. We invested Rs 435 crore in the modernization programme to upgrade our early warning system. The gains of this can be seen if you look at the response and effects of recent super cyclone storms like Phani and Ampan. There has been a paradigm shift in cyclone warning, we have been able to provide almost five days advance information about the genesis, track, intensity and landfall process, and advance warning about the floods expected.

There has also been quite an effective response system with the improved national disaster management plan, as a result of which early actions are being taken along with the early warning. The media has also played a role in raising awareness and transmitting information to the last mile. We have been able to minimize loss of lives in the last 10 years”, he said in a recent interview.
Dr. Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, who is affectionately known as ‘cyclone man of India’ for having accurately predicted the path of ferocious cyclonic storm Phailin that hit the coast of Orissa in 1999. Accurate prediction and timely action by local authorities and people saved tens of thousands of lives and it was greatly appreciated by national and international agencies. As head of the cyclone division in the Indian Meteorological Department, New Delhi, Mohapatra has seen over forty cyclones.Unlike astronomical phenomena like full moon or even complicated events such as eclipses, Mohapatra says “weather phenomena are non-linear.” He says “imagine you draw a straight line of four centimeters and again continue from the end point for another four cm, you can know easily the total is eight cm this is linear; but now imagine a curve whose length is four cm and now you draw another curve of length from the end point of the first, you can’t predict the length from the starting point to the endpoint. This is non-linear”. Whether phenomena like cyclones are greatly influenced by initial conditions and hence knowing as accurately possible the initial condition helps in more reasonable predictions.Mohapatra joined IMD in 1992 and was working in Odisha when the Super Cyclone of 1999 struck the coast killing more than 15,000 people. At that time, only a 24-hour prediction warning was available, which surely was not sufficient to save lives. He and others could do nothing as the cyclone ravaged. As a fallout of this human tragedy, IMD embarked upon modernization of the weather prediction with a view to predict natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunami in advance and provide accurate reliable advance information to civil authorities to undertake precautionary actions. Mohapatra was shifted to Delhi in 2002 and asked to oversee the modernization.Today three state-of-art Indian satellites constantly watch over the Indian region and provide weather picture every fifteen minutes. Twenty four Doppler radars have already been installed constantly watching for the formation of low pressure area in the Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal. Six thousand seventy-five automatic weather augmented by five hundred fifty manned stations, twenty ocean buoys assist effective cyclone prediction.