In cyclone season, there’s no respite. Even before the last murmurs of cyclone Tauktae have faded away, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast the formation of another cyclonic storm, this time over the Bay of Bengal. On 20 May, it issued a statement saying “A Low Pressure Area is very likely to form over north Andaman Sea & adjoining eastcentral Bay of Bengal around 22nd May, 2021. It is very likely to intensify into a cyclonic storm by 24th May 2021. It very likely to move northwestwards and reach Odisha-West Bengal Coast around 26th May morning.”
It very likely to move northwestwards and reach Odisha-West Bengal Coast around 26th May morning.— India Meteorological Department (@Indiametdept) May 20, 2021
Given the now annual occurrence of severe cyclonic storms making landfall on the eastern and western coasts, it is important to understand what cyclone Tauktae has taught us. After all, as it made its way up the Arabian Sea to crash into the Gujarat coast on 18 May as a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm (VSCS), Tauktae caused widespread destruction in Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat, as well to the union territories of Lakshwadeep and Daman and Diu.
Like all cyclones in this age of climate crisis, Tauktae too intensified rapidly, going from a Cyclonic Storm (CS) with windspeeds of up to 87kmph on 15 May to an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm (ESCS, windspeeds of 185kmph) on 17 May, off the coast of Mumbai. High winds, massive storm surges, extremely heavy rainfall and power outages were the result.
According to climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) in Pune, cyclone Tauktae also did something quite strange. “Even after landfall, it maintained the cyclone status for almost a day: 16-18 hours or more. Usually once cyclones make landfall, the supply of heat and moisture from the ocean is cut off, and they dissipate quite fast. But this one maintained its status for quite a long time.” Koll further adds that Tauktae’s rapid intensification from a weak cyclone to an extremely severe one occurred in less than 24 hours. “Its rapid intensification time was also kind of a record of how much speed it gained within a short time. And that too near the coast of Mumbai,” he says.
Koll says that the cyclone was a perfect example of what scientists call a “compound event”. “So you have the water with the storm surge coming in. Then you also have the heavy rainfall from the cyclone, and in the background we have a gradually rising sea level. So there is a triple impact because all these factors are overlapping.” He says that as a result, larger areas than normal were flooded, and the flooding were prolonged.
Last week, when Tauktae was still developing over Lakshwadeep, I had written about how anomalously high sea surface temperatures (SST) play a crucial role in intensifying cyclones. That is something we saw again with Tauktae, as it intensified due to high SST over the Arabian Sea. According to Abinash Mohanty, programme lead in the Risks and Adaptation team at the climate policy organisation, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), India’s coastal areas are not only seeing increased cyclone impacts, but also droughts. “The bottom line is that drought plays a very pivotal role in the intensification of cyclones. In our disaster planning, we never see discussions around this, around compounded impacts of events. First and foremost, you need to identify. Once you identify, then you acknowledge that there is a problem. Once you acknowledge a problem, then you act,” he says.
In December last year, Mohanty authored a report for CEEW called Preparing India for Extreme Climate Events: Mapping Hotspots and Response Mechanisms. The report found that 75% of India’s districts are vulnerable to extreme climate events such as cyclones, droughts and floods. It is based on an extreme events catalogue prepared by the organisation, covering a time period of 1970-2019. According to the analysis, since 2005, the annual average of Indian districts affected by cyclones have tripled, while cyclone frequency has doubled. In the past decade, 258 districts have been affected by cyclones.
Mohanty says that there are a number of things that could be done right now. One of which is a unified emergency response framework. As a part of this citizens can be sensitised in knowing the protocols to follow when a disaster hits. He also says that low income housing in cities should be disaster proofed. Excellent evacuation protocols are saving lives, he adds, but governments need to invest in protecting infrastructure as well. “The implementation of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, approved in 2015, should consider such worrying trends. Further, climate-vulnerable states such as Gujarat must accelerate the climate-proofing of critical infrastructure, industry and communities. They must carry district-level climate risk assessments periodically and set up an unified emergency response framework to better tackle the compounded impacts of extreme climate events, and aid recovery and reconstruction,” Mohanty had said in a statement released on 18 May by CEEW.
Koll’s main takeaway from the cyclone is on similar lines. He says that India needs to analyse such compound events and prepare accordingly. He also says that a risk assessment for India’s coastline is of paramount importance.