‘We don’t have proper seasons in India now’

Jatin Singh is never under the weather and that, perhaps, is because he’s always striving to get on top of it. Matters meteorological are a preoccupation with the founder and chief executive of Skymet Weather Services, the Noida-based weather forecasting company in the business of tracking phenomena that’s getting wilder with each passing year.

Skymet has, since its launch in 2003, evolved to become a go-to weather forecasting service in India for government as well as non-governmental organisations. In this interview with Labonita Ghosh, Mr Singh talks about Skymet and its work, while regretting the fact that the country — despite having to deal with ferocious heatwaves, frequent floods and worse — still does not have time and space enough for debate and discussion about the dangers of climate change. Edited excerpts:

Tell us a little about Skymet.

I was a journalist who later started working in air pollution and disaster management. That was before I founded Skymet. We began by working directly with farmers and other consumers. Skymet is both an app and a website, through which millions of people can access the weather. I wanted to democratise the process of weather forecasting.

It seems increasingly like India is experiencing only three weather conditions: very hot, very cold or very wet. What’s happening to our seasons?

We don’t have proper seasons in India anymore; now we have only winter and summer. We used to have ‘transition seasons’, winter to spring, summer to monsoon and then autumn. That’s disappearing, mainly because of the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, which translates into extreme weather. That smooth curve of increase and decrease in temperatures, and increase and decrease in precipitation has vanished.

What are the reasons for this?

The first is the build-up and concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is a late 1980s phenomenon caused by industrialisation, initially in China and then in India. This carbon dioxide has unbalanced global weather systems and temperatures. We have a target of capping temperature increases over the next 20-30 years but that is not happening. The reality is that the last six years have been the hottest of the century across the world.

Second is the concentration of water vapour in the atmosphere because of the heat; this is abruptly changing precipitation patterns. It rains a lot quite quickly and then there are no rains over long periods of time. We are also experiencing what is called ‘microclimate’ because of so-called development: the cutting down of trees and forests, wind flows interrupted by urban heat islands and a decrease in atmospheric moisture. For instance, in summer it was quite common for a hot day to be followed by a series of thunderstorms. But it’s no longer as cyclical as it used to be.

We have not been studying surface and atmospheric parameters quite as efficiently over the past century. We don’t really understand how or why this is taking place. We stick to the theory of increased carbon but the truth is that the mechanics of how the atmosphere works have changed to a great extent. We no longer have any ‘natural sponges’ for the absorption of heat, moisture or flood water, so it’s all spilling out as extreme weather.

Rainfall too seems to have become erratic. For instance, Mumbai has longer monsoons while Bengaluru faces unseasonal, torrential rain and floods.

We must look at precipitation in two different ways. One is the temporal distribution of rainfall and the probability of unseasonal rain. Intense seasonal rain, or an added element like hail, or heavy rain in winter, are unusual phenomena. Is it a consequence of climate change? We don’t really know. Does it happen every year? Definitely not.

Earlier, there was some predictability with the monsoon. It stretched between June and September (sometimes October) and would deliver 16% of rain in June, 29% in July, 33% in August and 17% in September. That was, with a 20% variability, the ‘curve’. Now the amount of rain you get in June and September is almost the same, and the variability has gone up by 50%.

August 2022, for example, was a failure as a monsoon month. There was minus 20% rain and it’s very difficult for the monsoon to recover from something like that. Then in September and October it was at plus 50%. This meant that the 2022 monsoon was 99% of the long-period average, but at times it felt like a drought. Today you get near-average rainfall but you get it all at once; it’s no longer staggered.

In cities this plays out in the form of heavy rain that the infrastructure cannot handle, which causes floods. That was the case in Mumbai in 2005, Chennai in 2015 and Bengaluru in 2022.

An elderly couple from Alleppey in Kerala being taken to safety during the devastating floods that crippled the state in 2018

People often don’t understand how all of this is related to climate change.

Climate change has been an issue in India for the last generation or so. It is urban people who have been ignorant and least affected by it. For instance, between 1900 and 2000 there was a drought every decade. But between 2000 and 2023 we have had six droughts: in 2002, 2004, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015, apart from a few bad years with below-normal rainfall.

The media no longer publishes the number of farmer suicides, but there has been tremendous distress in Maharashtra and Karnataka on account of uneven distribution of rainfall. This disrupts crop cycles and causes heavy post-harvest losses. Rural livelihoods in India have been hit by climate change for about 30 years. Agriculture is extremely sensitive to such changes, whether it be with the quantum of produce or its quality.

Have weather extremes sparked awareness about climate change in our cities?

No, otherwise people would not be obsessed with acquiring more square feet, more clothes and more ‘things’. How many people feel guilty about their carbon footprint? How many buy hybrid vehicles because that is more responsible behaviour? How many people are vegetarians? People show up in plenty at climate conferences and seminars but, in terms of making personal choices, I don’t think they care enough.

Those who work on a day-to-day basis, like a vegetable vendor or a fisherman, also have their livelihoods impacted by the weather. If Mumbai shuts down for a week because of heavy rainfall, its street vendors are not able to sell anything and their stocks rot. Similarly, heavy rainfall affects fishing communities all along the coast of India.

But urban India (even the urban poor) is more resilient than rural India — because it is richer. Climate change is a slow-moving catastrophe and urban people, both from a food-supply and a disease perspective, are less affected by it. Furthermore, cities can access water when they need and their denizens can be relocated when required. That makes it tough to put a number on urban livelihoods being affected by climate change.

Unlike a farmer, how much a city dweller earns is not dependent on how much he grows. The prices of vegetables may go up during a low-rainfall season, but that is a function of multiple things.

What impact does this slow-moving catastrophe have on human health? Are we seeing the return of old diseases and the emergence of new ones?

The creation of a band of varying temperatures and the availability of moisture makes for fertile ground for vector-borne diseases. No one had heard of dengue or chikungunya 20 years ago. Air pollution and the like, which are tangentially related to climate change, are causing respiratory health crises in Delhi and north India, especially during winter.

With minimum temperature variation in Delhi last winter, it went from 1.4°C to 10.2°C in a span of just five days. This jump of nine degrees, followed by a sudden drop because of unseasonal rain, sparked chaos. People forget that it’s not just a dip in winter temperatures that affects us. In January of 2007 and 2008, the maximum temperature was 30°C in Delhi. This hot-cold variation fuels a steep curve in temperatures.

Climate change is a slow-moving catastrophe and urban people, both from a food-supply and a disease perspective, are less affected by it.”

If we look at evolutionary history, we can see that anthropogenic changes in climate force an impact on our physiology. It’s happening quite rapidly with young children and older people. Large temperature variations, if you are already vulnerable, will make you weaker and sicker and compromise your lifespan. And this will happen across the animal kingdom, including with human beings.

Given what Skymet is involved in, do you work closely with the Indian government?

Very closely. The central government is our single largest client. We work with the government to capture yield data and remote sensing data. The Maharashtra government gets its weather data from us, while we also work with the Kerala government on forecasting and actual data. We run the disaster management for precipitation as well as forecasting in Nagaland and we’ve also worked with the Gujarat government.

We’ve discussed the Indian situation. What about the world?

It is the same pattern of extreme weather everywhere. Europe has witnessed a number of heatwaves in the last two-three years. Summer temperatures in London have touched a never-before 40°C. The continent is not receiving enough snowfall, which means there is not enough water in the rivers for navigation.

A number of vector-borne diseases are emerging in Europe as a consequence of climate change, besides people having to contend with mosquitoes and fierce heatwaves. Europeans are not used to such high levels of evapotranspiration [when water from the soil and trees evaporates into the atmosphere].

In the US the intensity of hurricanes has increased, but winters have become less harsh. Europe and America have only one season for planting and growing crops, not two like us. This means that at some point their agricultural patterns and food supply will get disrupted by climate change.

If India has to grow, we must consider GDP. But that GDP has to be calculated differently ... if we factor the cost of environmental damage into our GDP, it would look very different.”

Are there new kinds of pests that are attacking crops now?

In 2020, there was a massive locust infestation in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. The swarms are said to have entered India from Pakistan and they attacked crops. There was a climate change reason for this. A rise in temperatures and successive cyclones in Africa and West Asia had created the warm and moist conditions needed for the locusts to lay and hatch eggs in huge numbers.

Is there a way to reverse all this or should we accept that this is the new normal?

This is the new normal. Human beings are extremely arrogant. We create climate systems but as soon as we have a measure of economic success with our GDP, everybody starts eyeing growth. This is unsustainable growth. We want to contain climate change but we don’t stop producing more cars or constructing more buildings or consuming less food.

We believe that we can throw more money at climate change solutions and that will contain it. At an earlier time, when there were fewer people around and we were not so obsessed with GDP, the environment was doing well enough. Not any more.

People want to do something about climate change but I feel that train has left the station long ago. The one thing we don’t want to hear is that we have to consume less and live with it. How do I tell my child not to be ambitious, not to acquire more clothes, cars, food?

If India has to grow, we must consider GDP. But that GDP has to be calculated differently. The more of a surplus we create, the more it hurts the environment. If we factor the cost of environmental damage into our GDP, it would look very different.

We should also look at providing benefits to rural folk who live far healthier, eco-friendlier lives with far less per capita usage of energy and resources [than urban people]. They bear the cost of urban consumption, much like developing countries have to bear the brunt of developed countries.