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International collaboration to help predict severe Indian monsoons

New Delhi : A new collaboration between academic institutes across India, the US and China and the Indian Government holds promise in predicting life-threatening Indian monsoon rains.

Thunderstorms embedded within Indian monsoon systems can deluge areas with dozens of inches of rain in little time, causing severe flooding and the loss of hundreds of lives each year.

Now, based on multi-decade soil moisture and soil temperature fields using variety of surface and satellite data, researchers at the institutes have come up with fine-scale data, which was so far not available for India’s monsoon regions. The data is a critical ingredient to understanding and improving predictions of how violent storms will behave over land.

Also, better predictions of when, where and how much rain will fall, is key to saving property and lives.

Led by Purdue University’s Dev Niyogi, professor of agronomy and Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, with colleagues from the Indian Institute of Technology-Bhubaneswar; National Institute of Technology, Rourkela; Chinese Academy of Meteorological Science, Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences and the US National Center of Atmospheric Research, the team found that just as storms change behavior based on the landscape – such as moving from water to land – or from encountering a cold or warm front, they also react to changes in wet or dry and warm versus colder soils.

“For a long time Indian monsoon research has focused as an oceanic feedback, but in recent years we have seen localized heavy rain embedded within thunderstorm events with flooding and cloud bursts that occur over land,” said Niyogi, whose findings were published in the journal Scientific Data.

“These thunderstorms often flare up because they’re responding to a boundary – meaning an edge of a different environment. What we have learned is that gradients in soil moisture and soil temperature help create an atmospheric frontal boundary and can unleash violent reactions from a storm. Understanding these locations climatologically is therefore quite important to help these predictions", he added.

Niyogi and colleagues worked more than three years on an intensive, collaborative project that was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences under the National Monsoon Mission to compile different datasets and assimilate global satellite soil moisture and soil temperature data from 1981-2017 and beyond.

Their product now provides gridded data every three hours for every 4 km parcel of land giving soil moisture and temperature in India. Combined with observed weather during that period, the data can improve models used to predict future storms.

“This data is useful for a host of applications, including to help make decisions about where to grow crops or places in which we can adapt to prevent flooding or erosion,” Niyogi said.

The data collection was possible because of the investment India has made through its Monsoon Mission and the partnership Purdue has created with the Indian government and scientists, he added.

The team developed 14-years (201-14) of soil moisture/temperature SM/ST data. This dataset captured inter-annual, intra-seasonal, and diurnal variations under different monsoon conditions. The SM/ST data allowed improved simulations of heavy rain events, demonstrating its value over the Indian monsoon region (IMR), which has diverse land-surface characteristics.

“Working together, between Purdue and the Indian teams, as well as the support we got on both sides, we could create a product that has been desired for a number of decades now,” Niyogi said. “It’s really heartening to see that at the intersection of technology and human collaboration, ideas can be converted into useful products.”

The team comprised, besides Niyogi, Hara Prasad Nayak, Raghu Nadimpalli, Palash Sinha and U C Mohanty from IIT-Bhubaneswar; Krishna Osuri from NIT-Rourkela, and M Rajeevan, Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, with Fei Chen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US.

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