NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Late this month, when residents of Delhi were reeling under a heat wave of 44 degrees Celsius and higher for the fifth day running, discomfort was everywhere.
But it could have been worse. Thanks to advance warning of the impending heat wave by a private weather forecasting company, the Indian capital’s power distribution companies were able to keep up with demand to run fans and air conditioning.
In India, private ‘met offices’ have become central to the functioning of a wide range of businesses: farms, power companies, crop insurance providers, commercial sports events companies, transport businesses and private airlines.
An old joke in Delhi goes: “Weatherman says the day will be dry? Carry your umbrella to work!” Until recently, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) was better known as the focus of jokes than for its accuracy.
It is only this year that the India Meteorological Department has started surprising everyone with more or less accurate forecasts. But even these can be too broad, without the specific detail needed by many businesses, corporate officials say.
That is why private weather forecasting companies are doing a booming business, with Skymet, one of the most popular, claiming to have doubled their business over the last year.
The reason for their success is the need for precise and highly localised forecasts, ranging between time periods of one day to 10 minute intervals.
“This is because climate change has caused major variations of weather locally. Across-the-country forecasts are not following time-honoured patterns, and businesses are directly hit by local variations,” Jatin Singh, managing director of Skymet told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jatin runs around 1,000 automatic weather stations and plans to double that in the next 12 months. And while some forecast companies import the equipment, Jatin says he gets his own equipment made in India, which has brought the cost down to less than Rs 100,000 ($1,800).
Skymet supplies forecasts to some of the top Indian news television channels, power distributers and crop insurers. “Our business is dependent on accuracy and customisation,” he says.
These comparatively new companies in the forecast business have quickly moved to distinguish themselves in style the India Meteorological Department. Users say the IMD’s website is staid in looks and tough to navigate, and forecasts are made based on reports from weather stations far from where businesses are functioning.
Companies like Skymet and National Collateral Management Services speak a different lingo: “Hey dude, what’s the weather in your city?” reads one website button. The services also offer forecasts tailor-made for each company’s needs.
A decade ago, forecasts from the IMD were often tucked away in a corner of the newspaper, or limited to short announcements on India’s more than 100 television news channels.
Now private forecasters are giving the channels not just data but customised graphics, which they can use without having to worry about translating data into visuals themselves.
Newspapers are dedicating more space to weather predictions as well. One newspaper, for instance, receives from its private forecasting company a .pdf file with graphics. “Are you travelling today?” it asks, and dishes out the data with icons for road transport, trains and aeroplanes. These carry details of what to expect in any of the commercially important places in the state.
BK Singh, the managing director of BK Consimpex, a weather software company tied up with one of the new forecaster, says: “We get data from across the world, every hour. …This is the same data IMD also gets, but we use our specific software to develop a forecasting tool which companies like Skymet or NCML use. Their forte is customising that data to suit the specific needs of each of their clients.”
“No one can beat the IMD in historically collected data or research,” he says. “The fact is they have the data. But it is too much to expect them to do this kind of value added stuff for specific business interests.”
Sanjay Banga, the head of projects, engineering and contracts for Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited, says Skymet’s promise of 90 percent accuracy on short-term temperature predictions, within a range of 1 degree Celsius, is one reason they contracted with the private firm. The firm also promises accuracy within a 2-degree Celsius range on medium term predictions, which range up to six months.
He says that forecast data such as temperature, humidity, rainfall and wind speed are used to predict demand for power one day in advance and in the medium term. Weather data has significant impact on demand for power in the peak of summer, when use of air conditioners can push power use up by nearly half.
According to one estimate, the India Meteorological Department would need 550 new automatic weather stations, 55 Doppler radars and 3,600 rain gauges across the country, to match private forecasting capabilities. Around Rs 9.5 billion ($169 million) has been set aside to help upgrade IMD’s capabilities
Swati Basu, who heads the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting of the IMD, said that already “the days of jokes on IMD forecasts are going away.”
“The amount of data we receive today is at par with any forecasting agency anywhere in the world,” she said. “IMD’s super computers are analysing one betaflop of data instead of the earlier data measured only in teraflops. We receive very high resolution images today,” with the minimum resolution falling from 150 km to 25 km, with an aim of reaching 16 km.
However, she admits that district level infrastructure is not up to the mark, and that IMD has not been able to provide web-enabled data so far, “which is not our mandate”. Problems of security, theft and maintenance have to be solved first to set up district-wise weather stations, she said.
That will be done but will take time, experts say, with typical government delays in approving funds and producing equipment expected.
Sujit Chakraborty is a science and environmental journalist based in New Delhi.
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