Guest Essay by Kip Hansen — 17 January 2020
Now that the 2019 Southwest Monsoon is officially over, it is reported to have delivered 110% of the long-term average amount of rain to this mostly dry sub-continent. It was just months ago that the international press was touting stories about water problems in Chennai. You may be more familiar with the previous name of the city, Madras. The NY Times covered the story and threw in a line: “And then there’s climate change. It doesn’t bear direct blame for Chennai’s water crisis, but it makes it worse. “
Not to let any bad news go to waste, more recent coverage carries headlines: “India: scores dead as late monsoon rains inundate northern states — More than 100 dead in deluge after delayed rains overwhelm inadequate drainage systems”. The venerable New York Times last November carried this: “India’s Ominous Future: Too Little Water, or Far Too Much” by Bryan Denton and Somini Sengupta with a lede of “Decades of short-sighted government policies are leaving millions defenseless in the age of climate disruptions – especially the country’s poor.”
In fact, while the 2019 Southwest Monsoon was a bit late arriving, it finally delivered. At 110% of the long term average, rains have had positive and negative effects. As nearly-always in India, a above average monsoon brings flooding and death. This last year? 1,900 reported killed in monsoonal flooding. Note that the current population of India is believed to be about 1,386,000,000 (yes, that’s better than one and a third billion, with a B). This is obviously a Climate Emergency! Or is it?
Way too many humans have died in this year’s flooding, but such numbers are not unusual for India — according to Em-Dat at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), this is a high year, but not an exceptionally high year, and more or less normal for above-average monsoon years. (Note that the earlier years in the EM-DAT database are not reliable and increases are often due to improved reporting — confirmed with CRED via personal communication.)
For comparison, in 2019, a total of 92 people died from floods in the United States, the majority of these by intentionally (and foolishly, having been warned and warned again) driving their cars onto flooded roads.
The prediction of India’s monsoon, on which so much of the nation’s well-being depends, is practiced internationally. For 2019, AccuWeather issued this is in July 2019:
“For the season as a whole, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls anticipates near-normal rainfall across most of southern, eastern and far northern India. The exceptions may be across the coast of Kerala and southern Karnataka, where a surplus is anticipated.”
WeatherUnderground (The Weather Company, an IBM Business) called for “Another Subpar Monsoon Season Likely for India in 2019”:
“It’s been 25 years since India has had a significantly wetter-than-average monsoon, and 2019 is unlikely to break this streak, according to new outlooks from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and The Weather Company, an IBM Business (TWC). The IMD’s latest monsoon outlook, issued on May 31, projects that total national rainfall during the monsoon season (June-September) will end up at 96%, or at the low end of the normal range (96-104%). The margin of model error in the IMD outlook is 4% in either direction—which implies the odds are almost even that 2019’s monsoon rainfall will actually fall below the normal range.”
Since then, several news reports have highlighted that the 2019 monsoon was the rainiest in 25 years. Let’s take a look: (India has been very careful in its recording of monsoon rainfall)
The green bars are “normal” years — years within +/- 10% of the long-term average. Red bars are “drought” years and blue bars are flood years. The original graph only extended to 2017, but I have added on the right hand side the two additional years — 2018 at 91% (shown as -9%) and 2019 at 110% (shown as flood) [source: Reserve Bank of India].
Without bothering with a detailed look, we can see that since 1995 or so (about 25 years), India’s summer monsoons have been below the long-term average far more often than not — with five extraordinary drought years. And, until 2019, only one year approached the +10 % threshold.
The most recent period looks very similar to the 1900-1930 period, with more drier years than wetter years.
There have been 27 drought years (lower than 90%) and 21 flood years (greater than 110%) — including 2019 — since 1870. These are annual national numbers and can give a false impression. The rainfall is not always even — some localities getting too much and some not enough — even in a normal year.
This year, 2019, the southwest monsoon ran a bit late, by about two weeks, leaving the northwest of India in a heat wave condition. But, according to the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy report for October 2019, “The initial delay and deficiency in the south-west monsoon has been mitigated by the resurgence of rains during July-September. Comfortable reservoir levels augur well for rabi sowing and food grains stocks above the buffer norms provide a cushion against potential inflationary pressures.” and “Although the south-west monsoon turned out to be above long period average, its uneven progress – both temporal and spatial – could impinge upon the prospects for agriculture.”
When the monsoon got fully underway, in many areas it was not until September that the heavy rains came. Heavy rains in less-developed nations lead to problems: flooding and loss of life, over-stressed sewage systems, streams and rivers filled with street trash and other pollutants — all these the results of infrastructure problems that have never been properly addressed, have been under-addressed, or which have been allowed to build as populations expand without infrastructure keeping up.
“…leaving millions defenseless in the age of climate disruptions” ?
Do the facts about India’s monsoons support the idea that the last 50 years — roughly the posited global warming period — show “climate disruptions”?
No, the facts do not support such a view — India’s monsoons have whipsawed between drought and flood since modern records began to be kept. The cyclic nature of El Niños and La Niñas are evident in India’s national rainfall record — El Niño generally bringing less rains and drought and La Niña more rain and flooding. India’s well-maintained national rainfall data set shows no signs of climate disruption.
How unusual is a late (or early) monsoon?
The paper featuring the graph above concludes that in the long term record there can be detected to be an average 2-day later arrival date in the latest 25 years or so, over the earlier period. The data in the graph is only to 2012. Visually, one might guess that this effect is due to the fewer years with very early arrival dates in the 1800s. 2019’s two-week delayed arrival is quite late, but not exceptional.
Over a period of more than 200 years, the onset of the Indian Southwest monsoon reliably falls within a 1 month window. So, as far as monsoon onset is concerned, as we saw with total rainfall, there is no evidence of climate disruption.
What do we see in the long-term Indian Southwest Monsoon data?
We see India’s year-to-year weather and when the years are added together, we see India’s climate. The rainfall record goes back to 1870 — and the monsoon onset in Mumbai (Bombay) goes back to 1780. These long-term records show a lot of annual variation, both in total rainfall and monsoon onset, but over the centuries long record, amazing stability.
The mostly-dependable rains are a great blessing to the people of rural India bringing good crops and prosperity but when the rains come too fast and too furious, they are a curse, bringing flooding, loss of property and loss of life.
India, as a nation, has made great strides forward in bringing its people out of poverty — but progress has been uneven, as we would expect, it is not an easy task. To even out the blessings and mitigate the curse of the monsoons, India needs more general prosperity — higher standards of living — fewer abject slums, better living conditions for its poor and more and better national and regional infrastructure.
What we do not see in India’s monsoon is climate change or climate disruption.
# # # # #
As a result of the most recent monsoon, India’s water reservoirs are in good shape:
The Central Water Commission reports, as of yesterday, that nearly every reservoir in India is currently above the 10 year average. (There seem to be a few non-reporting areas and one area in the east is shown as 80-100% and the Sundarban Delta area showing a low 60-70%).
# # # # #
It is a bit presumptuous for me to write about India’s monsoons when we have readers here who are actual Indian weather and climate professionals. I hope they will forgive my trespass — I just mean to present a quick overview and dispel some of the popular press reports of alarming changes in Indian climate.
India is not the only region that has monsoonal patterns of rainfall.
The Arizona (United States) Department of Transportation warns drivers of the challenges of driving during Arizona’s summer monsoon season. Northern Australia has a monsoon season that lasts from December through March.
If any readers are from that little patch of blue seen in the graphic above in northwest Canada, I’d like input about the reported monsoonal rains there.
Begin comments with “Kip…” if speaking to me. [Indicating to whom you are speaking is good for every directed comment.] Thanks.
# # # # #