Bhubaneswar: Accurate forecast of the natural calamity is a great weapon to contain the damage to life and property, and Dr Mrutunjaya Mohapatra, affectionately called as ‘Cyclone-Man’ of India is lauded for his accuracy in predicting the cyclones which breed over the Bay of Bengal. His predictions on the cyclone’s trajectory, wind speed as well as its character in sea and impact are “to the point” and “accurate”. It has helped Odisha and other cyclone-prone States in India not only to make the required preparation to face the calamity but also has saved thousands of lives every year.
Childhood Days Of the ‘Cyclone-Man’
Hailing from a nondescript village of Bhadrak’s coastal belt in Odisha, the cyclone man witnessed the wrath of a cyclone when he was merely a 6-yr-old kid. In 1971, a furious cyclone struck India’s east coast causing widespread devastation in coastal villages in Odisha. The thatched houses got destroyed, trees were uprooted and crops were ravaged. Saltwater from the sea intruded the fertile agricultural lands rendering them useless.
“My father saw the tidal waves moving towards the shore, and went door to door in the village asking them to move to a safe upper house. This act of his saved many lives, but the village was completely devastated. We did not get two square meals a day to eat for over a year. It got etched in my mind, and though I had never aimed to become a weatherman, in due course of my career when I qualified for the Indian Meteorological Services in 1992, I immediately joined it. It gave me an opportunity and a platform to study the nature of natural calamities and work towards minimal damage caused by it.”
His parents have a lasting impression on the young Mrutunjaya.
“I still remember my first stint to school when my mother literally beat me up to send me to study. She used to always point us the importance of education in one’s life. She always motivated us with her strong inspirational talks and imbibed in us the strength of education. On the other hand, my father taught us the values and how to take care of others sacrificing one’s self-interest. His actions spoke louder than his words.
Journey to the Weather Office
Though his initial dream was to become an engineer, the financial restraints of his humble poor background did not allow him to pursue it. So he made the best out of his existing resources and completed his Masters in Physics from the prestigious Vani Vihar (Utkal University). Be it doing his graduation with a single pair of clothes, or giving tuitions during his PG days, his life was never a smooth ride. Living in a joint family consisting of 6 siblings, he believed staunchly in family values and did his first job as a temporary employee in DRDO to support his father financially.
After a two year stint, he moved to the teaching profession and joined as a Physics lecturer in Jaleswar’s JK College for two years.
But fate had different plans for him. He got qualified for the Meteorological Department and immediately the mind ran to the cyclonic storm of 1971.
“Those memories haunted me and I always wanted to do something about it, so this was a perfect opportunity to work in this field.”
He joined the department and his journey as a weatherman begun.
Actions And Achievements
He landed in IMD in 1992. And when the Super Cyclone struck Odisha in 1999, he was posted in the Cyclone Warning Centre of Bhubaneswar. The cyclone was forecasted only one day before it struck. There was only one model (Limited Area Model) adapted from Florida State University, USA which could give forecast up to a lead period of 24 hours. There was only one satellite giving image 3 hourly, no Doppler weather radar, no automated weather stations, no buoys, no high wind speed recorders etc. There was large uncertainty in the determination of intensity and location. Bulletins were disseminated through telegrams. There were no effective early warning system and no fast communicational network also. Around 10,000 lives were lost in that cyclone.
“Compared to 1971, in 1999 as a meteorologist, I knew what a cyclone was. I understood its physical processes and its impact but was helpless again to exercise the role of early warning services to minimize the loss of lives to a maximum possible extent. So, it posed a challenge to the meteorologist within me to improve the cyclone warning services to minimize the loss of lives.”
“I started the verification of previous cyclones which had struck the land since 2003. This resulted in knowing how much accurate the IMD forecasts were earlier, it’s strengths and weaknesses. Targets were fixed to outshine the earlier forecasts.
Forecast accuracy got better day by day.”
A PhD holder in Monsoons, he also started his research on cyclones. He worked tirelessly towards the forecasting which could be accurate, consistent, timely and actionable. The IMD is presently following 12 models, (6 indigenous and 6 foreign) to predict the accuracy of cyclones.
Then, he started impact-based forecast, I.e damage expected and the actions suggested to the government and the public. To increase awareness among the public regarding cyclones, he introduced frequently asked questions with their answers on their website, distributed pamphlets among the people and interacted extensively with media. As the Chairman of Task Force formed by Indian Space Research Organisation, he suggested the meteorological sensors needed to forecast the climatic changes for the INSAT-4 satellite which is due to be launched in 2025, which will greatly help in accurately predicting the cyclones.
In 1996, he got married to Dipti whom the Cyclone man terms as his backbone. He prides the way his wife handles the household.
“She has taken care of my ailing father before his death, my extended joint family, both my sons, in fact, my whole household and me. Without her help, I would not have been able to achieve all these. She never objected to my working at erratic hours, my prolonged researches and my unflinching passion towards my work.”
“My mother is now 88-yr-old but I still take her advice on many issues as she is a forthright person having a very holistic view towards life.”
“We can now predict five days in advance the area of occurrence, time and point of landfall, wind velocity and wave height.” Now we are targeting to minimise the error in the forecast. Presently, the forecast error is around plus/minus 50 km. We have a target to minimise it to 30 km in the next 5 yrs and to 15 km by 2030.
So we are working towards developing technological infrastructure, planning towards increasing the observational network, satellite and radar input, ocean observations, etc.
Be it the ferocious cyclonic storm Phailin, HudHud or the extremely severe summer cyclonic storm Fani last year, accurate prediction by IMD and timely action by local authorities and people saved tens of thousands of lives and it was greatly appreciated by national and international agencies.