A horrific tropical cyclone-making landfall in the midst of election cacophony is not a good idea. It captures headlines briefly and it makes for good politics — who did what and who did not. But the fact is the impact of cyclone Fani, which devastated large parts of the Odisha and then hit West Bengal and Bangladesh, has not gone away. It has left behind a trail of broken homes, powerlines and infrastructure. The state has lost years of its development dividend in one rude and cruel shock.
But what needs to be acknowledged is the undeniable fact that there were far fewer fatalities in this cyclone than before. It tells us of the huge and incredible effort that was made by scientists, who correctly predicted the path and by the Odisha administration, which ensured over a million people were evacuated and taken to shelters for protection. The state had lost 10,000 people in the super cyclone of 1999. This time, even when wind speeds crossed 170 km/hour and reached 204 km/hour, the loss of human life was contained at 41 (which has now reportedly increased to 70). This is no small feat.
However, what we need to understand is what Fani means in an increasingly climate-risked world. Every time there is a similar natural disaster, fingers are pointed and attribution is made to climate change. Every time, there is a pushback, with climate sceptics arguing that there have always been cyclones and such natural disasters. Why blame climate change?
Sceptics will point to the fact that there is no absolute count, over time, to show that the number of tropical storms — cyclones or hurricanes — has increased. There is some change but the time-scale is not long enough to count the difference. The 2018 climate assessment by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that tropical storms in the Northern Hemisphere were up — from 63 in the previous year to 74 in 2018; and were roughly the same, 22, in the Southern Hemisphere. So, if you want, at your risk, you could argue, nothing is new. Storms will come and go. Why blame climate change?
The fact is that there is a big difference in these storms, as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is finding. These storms are increasingly and crazily unpredictable — in recent years the IMD has nearly perfected the science of cyclone forecast but now it is learning, in real time, to change its methods and to advance its technology to keep pace with this erratic creature of the oceans.
The first shock was with Ockhi, which hit the Kerala coast in late 2017, took many lives and caught fishermen at sea unawares. Ockhi went from a deep depression in the ocean to a cyclonic storm in a matter of six hours. We must realise that the failure to predict and warn was not just human. It was because of the unnatural characteristics — never seen before — of such a tropical storm. It changed direction; it gathered steam when least expected and become more intense and more virulent at speeds never seen before. One reason for this changing “nature” of the storm was, as scientists later found, the intense heat pockets in the ocean, which changed the direction and speed of the cyclone.
This time, the IMD was prepared for this change — it had learnt bitter lessons from Ockhi. They used even more sophisticated equipment and improved their prediction models with this learning. But the speed of change is so rapid that this learning of 2017 is already outdated.
In this case, Fani intensified from severe to very severe in no time — it also made landfall ahead of its schedule. This in spite of the fact that there is really good cyclone prediction now in India. Just consider what this means in real time. Fani was to hit Odisha by the afternoon, evacuations should have been completed by then. But Fani landed with ferocity by the morning. The fact that the state administration had planned and managed to move people ahead of schedule speaks volumes for their state of preparedness.
Then, Fani, moved inland — it reached Bhubaneshwar — and there it did not weaken in its wind speed. This in itself is surprising as storms need moisture on land to gather intensity and to lash the land with rain. This time, it is peak summer — a time when ocean storms never hit in any case. How did it move inland? Why? How should this be predicted in the future?
Fani tells us many things: One, that we must invest in the science of the weather and in the governance capacity to move rapidly to avert disasters. Two, that we must not count the number of tropical storms to conclude that the world is risked or not. But most importantly, it teaches us that the future is even more risked and even more unpredictable than we imagined. It is time we woke up to this reality. There is no time to lose.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment