The World

Weather Forecasts May Have Just Saved Thousands of Lives 

Indian villagers ride on the back of a tractor bearing a picture of Hindu monkey god Lord Hanuman as they return to Sonupur village around 15 kms from Gopalpur on October 13, 2013.

Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

In my colleague Laura Helmuth’s excellent recent series on life expectancy, the list of underappreciated life-saving factors she pointed to included “Earth-monitoring satellites and decades of ever-improving storm forecasting.”

This was certainly demonstrated this past weekend when India launched one of the largest evacuations in its history, moving more than 800,000 people out of the path of Cyclone Phailin, which made landfall on the east coast on Saturday.   

The death toll, so far, is 22, mostly due to falling walls and tree branches. While it’s still quite possible that could rise, it’s clear that the toll is surprisingly low given the dire predictions made before the storm hit.

As the New York Times writes, “Just 14 years ago, a cyclone in roughly the same place killed more than 10,000 people, and over the past century, the storms that have roared out of the Bay of Bengal have left much death and destruction in their wake.” A cyclone in the region in 1977 killed in at least 14,000.

There are a number of factors that made a difference this time. More people in rural India have cellphones and television, meaning they were aware the storm was coming. As the Times notes, even the many people who ignored the evacuation warning and stayed behind were able to take precautions before the storm hit. The country’s infrastructure has also greatly improved, though it still has a long way to go as the trampling death of over 100 pilgrims on a bridge in Madhya Pradesh State this same weekend demonstrated.

But India’s ability to track cyclones has also vastly improved since 1999. As M. Somasekhar writes for the Hindu, during that storm, “there were no Doppler Weather Radars (DWR). Nor was there sufficient capacity to interpret data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.”

Since then, India has deployed a network of Doppler radar systems, set up moored buoys to validate forecasts, and launched a sophisticated weather satellite. During this storm, the forecasts of the India Meteorological Department actually proved more accurate than U.S. and European forecasts which had predicted an even more severe storm.

I don’t mean to minimize the level of destruction that the thousands of people evacuated will be returning to, but with all the attention we give to the failures of government institutions, it’s worth pointing out the times when they do what they’re supposed to and save hundreds, if not thousands of lives in the process.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, here in the United States, parts of the National Weather Service are still operating but, “Weather research to support forecasting operations has stopped, as most researchers are furloughed.”