Technology

Tracking the why of the weather

Peter Niesewand June 11 1979
Technology

Tracking the why of the weather

Peter Niesewand June 11 1979

Tracking the why of the weather

Technology

The floodwaters have receded now in India’s southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, leaving nearly 1,000 dead, one million homeless, and the bloated corpses of cattle lying in the mud. The cyclone which brought this devastation—the first in India’s usual crop of summer disasters—has been replaced by a heat wave, with temperatures topping 45°C. Birds have been seen falling dead from treetops because of the oppressive heat.

For the first time this year, watching the unpleasant annual pageant are scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, and India itself, and backing them up is one of the biggest arrays of technology ever assembled to monitor the weather. The scientists are using nine earth satellites, 50 research ships, 110 aircraft, 300 high-altitude balloons, 300 drifting ocean buoys, 3,400 land stations, more than 1,000 commercial airliners and about 7,000 merchant ships. And all this, to try and track the monsoon, which is brewing in the background.

Where it will strike, when, and with what intensity is a matter of life and death to thousands on the subcontinent. The statistics which might help predict disasters will be freely exchanged between Russian and U.S. scientists and processed through their own computers.

The monsoon experiment is not something which matters only to the 660 million people of India: it will eventually benefit Canadians too. It is only part of a massive international program to look at the world’s weather, and try to fathom the rules not only of predicting whether baseball fans should be able to watch the Toronto Blue Jays in brilliant sunshine next Saturday, but also what sort of wheat crop Canadian farmers might expect in a few months’ time.

Over the next few months in different parts of the globe, almost every breath of wind will be monitored, in a program with the acronym GARP, (the Global Atmospheric Research Program ) although the monsoon experiment has its own code name: MONEX.

When all the data has been analysed, it could mean aircraft being re-routed well in advance to avoid storms and save fuel, irrigation projects in countries like India being confidently planned, families being moved in time from the paths of floods and cyclones, and even people just being able to organize picnics without fear of being washed out.

At the moment, only about 15 per cent of the earth’s surface is intensively monitored, and that is mostly over North America and Europe. This means scientists can, sometimes, reliably forecast tomorrow’s weather, but to be accurate beyond a 10-day period, they need data on the whole earth, as far as the South Pole.

No one has bothered much about the tropics up until now, which is curious because that is where everyone’s weather begins. Seventeen trillion kilowatts of solar energy hit the earth every day, mostly in the tropics and these act as a heat engine for the entire atmosphere. Warm, moist, tropical air rises and spreads out to the poles, while at the same time, colder polar air is sucked in toward the equatorial regions. This basic atmospheric pattern is constantly changed by the earth’s rotation, by the continents, mountains, oceans and polar ice masses. No one understands exactly how, or why.

Scientists hope the answers will come out of computers in the world data centres located in Moscow and in the U.S. One of the U.S. laboratories which has the ability to conduct such detailed work is the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, New Jersey, which uses an advanced scientific computer capable of handling 30 to 40 million bits of data per second.

Accurate long-range weather forecasts naturally also mean more money and —for a nation like India—more food. Knowing when to plant crops, and how much water and fertilizer will be needed to get top yields, can determine whether children starve.

The often ravaged nation of Bangladesh is at the moment in the grip of its worst ever drought, affecting almost the entire country and causing a major crop failure, estimated at one million tons of food grain. The water level of Kaptai Lake in the southeastern district of Chittagong, has fallen by 1 xk feet in only four days, causing a drastic reduction in the generating capacity of its hydroelectric power station and therefore a dropping-off in industrial production. As Bangladesh endures the latest of nature’s below-the-belt blows, the first concerted attempt is being made to answer the basic question: why?

Peter Niesewand