Leading with science

Print edition : September 11, 2009


TO evolve a consistent and integrated policy on the atmosphere, the oceans and the landmass, the activities in these areas were brought under one administration with the creation of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) in 2006, when Kapil Sibal was the Union Minister of Science and Technology.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), the Earthquake Risk Evaluation Centre (EREC), the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF), and the India Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) were moved to the MoES from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), as were the Department of Ocean Development (DOD) and the institutions under it, including the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai; the National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (NCAOR), Goa; the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad; the Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management Project Directorate (ICMAM-PD), Chennai; and the Centre for Marine Living Resources & Ecology (CMLRE), Kochi.

The MoES objective is to coordinate activities in atmospheric sciences, ocean science & technology and seismology. It aims to achieve this by creating a framework to understand the complex interactions among the key elements of the earth system, namely, the ocean, the atmosphere and solid earth. The national programmes in ocean science, meteorology, climate, environment and seismology will be an integral part of this framework. The Ministrys mandate is to provide the best possible services in, among other areas, forecasting monsoons, weather/climate parameters, and the state of oceans, studying earthquakes, and issuing warnings on tsunamis through well-integrated programmes.

The Ministry also deals with the application of science and technology for the exploration and exploitation of ocean resources, both living (such as fish) and non-living (such as polymetallic nodules and gas hydrates), and plays a nodal role in Antarctic/Arctic and Southern Ocean research.

At the policy level, the MoES, headed by Prithviraj Chavan as Minister of State with independent charge, works under the Earth Commission. The commission formulates policies, oversees their implementation, executes programmes in a mission mode, and ensures interdisciplinary integration. Shailesh Nayak, the Secretary, MoES, is also Chairman of the Earth Commission.

As a first step, the Ministry has undertaken the modernisation of the IMD, by upgrading its observation and forecasting systems, communication networks and services. Besides, the Ministry has to its credit, several achievements and initiatives, as described below:

Tsunami Early Warning System (TEWS): In the aftermath of the Sumatra earthquake of December 26, 2004, and the killer tsunami that it set off, the government decided to establish an early warning system for tsunamis and storm surges in the Indian Ocean region. The TEWS, which Kapil Sibal inaugurated on October 15, 2007, was mandated to have the following components:

Installation of sensors close to the ocean bottom at appropriate locations, with real-time connectivity; networking of tide gauges and data buoys to validate the arrival of tsunami waves on the coast; strengthening of the seismological network to indicate near real-time occurrence of tsunamigenic earthquakes; Development of models to understand inundation scenarios for the entire coast and mapping of potential risk areas; and the collection and analyses of information and the generation of status advisories.

The MoES, as the nodal Ministry, established the TEWS at the INCOIS in association with the DST, the Department of Space (DoS) and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

As part of the TEWS, the IMD has set up a 17-station Real Time Seismic Monitoring Network (RTSMN) that reports the occurrence of earthquakes capable of generating tsunamis. Data from the seismic field stations are transmitted through the VSAT communication network to central receiving stations (CRSs) at the IMD, New Delhi, and INCOIS.

The National Early Warning Centre (NEWC) receives real-time seismic data from the RTSMN as well as other international seismic networks. The system detects, within 20 minutes of occurrence, all earthquake events greater than a magnitude of 6 on the Richter scale in the Indian Ocean region.

In fact, the time taken to detect earthquake events has come down from the original 45 minutes, and the RTSMNs estimates match well with those of other international centres.

Himadri, the Indian Arctic station, in winter.-

Bottom pressure recorders (BPRs) installed in the deep ocean are the key sensors that detect an impending tsunami. The NIOT has installed four BPRs in the Bay of Bengal and two in the Arabian Sea. In addition, the NIOT and the Survey of India (SoI) have installed 30 tide gauges.

The ICMAM-PD has customised and successfully run a tsunami model for five historical earthquakes and has predicted inundation areas. These inundation areas are being overlaid on cadastral-level maps of 1:5,000 scale. These maps are useful in assessing the population and infrastructure that are at risk.

The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) generates high-resolution coastal topographic data required for modelling using Airborne Laser Terrain Mapping (ALTM) and Cartosat data. The INCOIS has also generated a large database of model scenarios for earthquakes and these are being used for early warning of tsunamis.

At present, the TEWS centre receives data from 17 seismic stations of the IMD, 10 stations of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) and more than 300 international stations. In addition, it receives data from 17 tide gauges at intervals of five minutes.

A host of communication methods are employed for receiving data from the sensors and for the dissemination of alerts. The Indian Space Research Organisations (ISRO) end-to-end communication plan for this, using INSAT, is now being upgraded.

The NEWC generates and transmits advisories to the control room of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for dissemination to the public. For transmitting the alerts, a satellite-based virtual private network for disaster management support (VPN-DMS) has been established. This network is also used to disseminate warnings to the State Emergency Operations Centres (SEOCs). In addition, messages are sent by fax, phone, SMS and e-mails to authorised officials. During April-December 2008, the TEWS centre monitored 148 major earthquakes and sent advisories to the INCOIS Director, the MHA and the MoES Secretary.

When the warnings get confirmed, the NEWC will be able to disseminate advisories directly to the administrators, the media and the public. The cyclone warning network of the IMD and electronic ocean information boards will be used to warn the public directly.

INSIDE the Tsunami Early Warning System Centre at INCOIS, Hyderabad.-

The Intergovernmental Coordination Group on the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) held a meeting in April 2008, where it endorsed the Indian TEWS as the regional tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, the INCOIS has also initiated regional tsunami watch services for the Indian Ocean by providing level-1 services to other warning centres.

Low Temperature Thermal Desalination(LTTD): Accessing drinking water in islands and coastal areas is a serious problem. To alleviate this, the NIOT has developed the LTTD technology to generate fresh water from sea water. Warm surface sea water is flash evaporated under low pressure and the vapour condensed using cold deep sea water. Starting from a laboratory-based 5,000-litre-a-day-capacity scale model, the NIOT has since set up an LTTD plant of one lakh l/d capacity at Kavaratti in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep.

A barge-based LTTD plant of one million l/d capacity was commissioned 40 km off Chennai in April 2007. The mooring was deployed at a depth of 1,000 metres in the Indian Ocean, the first of its kind in the world. The plant was run successfully for over three weeks to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale plants. Given this success, a 10 mld LTTD plant is being planned.

The NIOT is also working on adapting the LTTD process for power plants, where huge amounts of warm water are discharged continuously. A demonstration plant is coming up at the North Chennai Thermal Power Station. Subsequent to the success of the Kavaratti plant, the Lakshadweep administration has approached NIOT to set up similar plants in Andrott, Agatti and Minicoy islands. These plants are expected to be commissioned in 2009.

Cloud Aerosol Interaction and Precipitation Enhancement Experiment (CAIPEEX): Weather-modification experiments for more rain are carried out all over the world for water resource management, hydroelectric power generation and agriculture.

In India, the interior part of the peninsula is a rain shadow region. The rainfall variability here is larger and the region is drought prone. During weak monsoon years, acute water shortages prevail over this region and there are demands from State governments for cloud seeding. Cloud-seeding experiments with modern technology have been carried out by Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in recent years.

In the monsoon season, the precipitable water on any day at any place is about 5 cm. But average daily rainfall during the monsoon season (88/122 cm) is only about 0.7 cm, which shows that only 10 per cent of available moisture is converted into rainfall. The underlying principle of most precipitation enhancement experiments is to trigger precipitation in cumulonimbus clouds without allowing moisture to get dissipated otherwise. If one can achieve this, the efficiency of cloud precipitation can be improved.

The operational programmes carried out by State governments in the past few years were not scientifically planned and observations on the environment and on the clouds were not recorded.

The NIOTs low temperature thermal desalination plant at Kavaratti, Lakshadweep, which has a capacity of one lakh litres a day.-

So, no conclusions can be drawn on the impact of seeding. The results of the IITMs cloud-seeding experiments in the 1970s, which reportedly showed a 24 per cent increase in rainfall, are taken as the basis for carrying out operational programmes.

Many factors limit the use of these results in the present situation. In the past 30 years, there have been large-scale changes in atmospheric conditions owing to anthropogenic activities and increased pollution (aerosol) levels. In this situation, there is an urgent need for a definitive conclusion to be drawn: first to understand underlying cloud microphysics and second to provide scientific guidance to State governments and other social organisations that consider seeding as a solution to mitigate drought.

With the above objectives, the IITM is conducting a national-level experiment, CAIPEEX, from 2009 to 2012. As many as 21 research and governmental organisations will participate in it.

(1) Cloud-aerosol interaction: Understanding cloud-aerosol interaction is a prerequisite for enhancing precipitation. Aircraft observation will help address the following key uncertainties in respect of cloud-aerosol interactions:

Cloud/precipitation microphysics issues: Understanding the background concentration, sizes, and chemical composition of aerosols that participate in cloud processes. How nucleation processes relate to the characteristics of aerosol particles; ice nucleation; the evolution of droplet sizes in clouds; the relative importance of drizzle in precipitation processes, and so on.

Cloud dynamics issues: Understanding cloud-to-cloud and cloud-mesoscale interactions and the lifetimes of clouds.

Cloud modelling issues: Problems faced in models for short-term prediction of heavy rainfall precipitation. The proposed observational cloud programme will help in validating cloud simulations.

Seeding-related issues: To study the diffusion, transport processes, in the cloud.

Cloud variability issues: There is large spatial and temporal variability of clouds over India. Convective clouds are found predominantly over the Bay of Bengal and north-eastern India. Interestingly, over the west coast of India, where intense rainfall occurs, the clouds are relatively shallow. Rainfall processes in such clouds are not well known.

Aerosol distribution issues: Aerosols perturb the radiation balance of the earth-atmosphere system via two mechanisms scattering and absorption of incoming solar radiation. The scattering of solar energy cools the earths surface. The absorption of solar energy by aerosols changes the atmospheric heating rates, thereby influencing atmospheric circulation. The indirect aerosol effect results in the modification of the reflective properties of clouds, an increase in the lifetime of clouds and the suppression of drizzle formation.

N. RAGHUVEERA REDDY (right), Andhra Pradesh Agricultural Minister, inspects an aircraft with cloud-seeding equipment aboard, in Hyderabad on July 20.-NOAH SEELAM/AFP

(2) Precipitation enhancement in seeded clouds: Continental clouds have high droplet concentrations and narrow droplet spectra at the cloud base. The seeding material (salt particles or silver iodide) is dispersed at the cloud base. The result is a broader-than-natural droplet spectrum near the cloud base, which enhances the potential for early and efficient precipitation in the lifetime of a cloud.

The proposed experiment is to be carried out in three phases. Phase I is for intensive cloud and aerosol observations from May to September 2009. In Phase II, precipitation enhancement experiments will be carried out by seeding clouds in 2010 and 2011. Data analysis will be carried out in Phase III in 2011 and 2012.

Ice core laboratory, third Antarctic station and Arctic expedition: The establishment of the NCAOR as an exclusive polar research laboratory is a reflection of Indias sustained interest in Antarctic science and the protection of its environment. The centre has been designated as the focal coordinating agency for the Indian Antarctic programme and is responsible for maintaining Maitri, the permanent Indian station in Antarctica.

An ice-core laboratory is now operational at the centre. It will serve as a repository of cores from Antarctica and the Himalayas. These will be used to understand past climate and environmental changes, which will help scientists refine the various climate models.

Twenty-four years after India joined the Antarctic Treaty, it hosted the Treatys 30th Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in May 2007, following which it was granted consultative status. Among the significant outcomes of the meeting was the ATCMs acceptance of Indias proposal for a new Indian research station at Larsemann Hills in East Antarctica. The station, Bharati, will become operational by 2012.

India sent its first Antarctic expedition in 1981. On January 25, 2006, on the occasion of the 25th year of Indias presence in Antarctica, a special multi-institutional expedition to the Southern Ocean and Larsemann Hills was launched on board the research vessel Akademik Boris Petrov. Its main objective was to carry out swath bathymetric surveys in the approach to the Larsemann Hills area. Multidisciplinary observations biological, geological, physical and chemical on suspended particulates in oceans and aerosols were made and meteorological and atmospheric data were collected. Despite the scientific and logistic expertise gained by the country through its presence in Antarctica, a wide gap exists in our knowledge of the Arctic, which is essential for a bi-hemispherical approach to polar sciences.

The Arctic Ocean and its surrounding regions are among the most important areas that govern the earths climate and serve as a repository of records of climatic history. The region also holds clues to the future as signals of the impending climate change are stronger in the Arctic.

The northern polar region has always been significant to the Indian subcontinent because of the impact it is known to have on the intensity of the Indian monsoon.

However, the exact mechanism has not been understood. India launched its first scientific expedition to the Arctic region under the leadership of Rasik Ravindra, Director, NCAOR, in August 2007, using the international research facility at Ny-Alesund in Spitsbergen island, Norway.

This expedition marked the beginning of a long-term Indian scientific collaboration in the ongoing global research in the difficult polar regions. The five-member team that undertook the expedition initiated projects on atmospheric studies, Arctic microbes and earth sciences. It was followed by another team of seven scientists led by Prof. A.K. Gwal of Barkatullah University, Bhopal, who spent four weeks in Ny-Alesund in March 2008.

The Indian Arctic station, Himadri, has been set up at Ny-Alesund in a heritage building that was once a school for the children of coal miners. Kapil Sibal in July 2008 inaugurated the base. Here researchers can carry out scientific studies round the year. India is the 11th country in the world to have a research station in Ny-Alesund.

Current areas of research in Ny-Alesund include marine science, aurora physics, biology, glaciology, geology, environmental science, geodetic studies, rocket probe studies, atmospheric physics, terrestrial studies and climate change monitoring. In general, the science in the Arctic will complement the ongoing scientific studies in Antarctica.

The Indian Continental Shelf Programme: This is a major multi-institutional endeavour that seeks to establish the outer limits of the countrys continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from its coastal baselines. India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in June 1995. Under it, any country seeking an extended continental shelf had to lodge its claims by May 2009. India is one of the few countries that submitted its claims within the stipulated time.

India made its claims on the basis of data collected by the NCAORs marine geophysical data acquisition programme that began in 2001. Geoscientific data of about 1.2 million square kilometres of offshore area were gathered, analysed and documented. The task comprised deep penetration multichannel seismic reflection, refraction and magnetic and gravity surveys covering over 31,500 line-km from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea in and off the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The Ministry of External Affairs, the National Hydrographic Organisation of the Ministry of Defence, the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) of the CSIR, the Geological Survey of India, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation worked in close association with the NCAOR.

The delineated region is being claimed by India.-

A coastal state has to submit its claims to the area beyond 200 nautical miles to the U.N.s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). This 21-member elected body of experts considers the data and other material submitted by the state and makes recommendations in accordance with Article 76 of the UNCLOS and/or the Statement of Understanding adopted by the third UNCLOS. On the basis of these recommendations, the coastal state may then define its final and binding outer continental shelf limits.

The process of determination of the outer limits of a coastal nations continental shelf involves the collection and analysis of data that describe the depth to the seabed (bathymetry), and the geophysical characteristics of the seabed and the sub-sea floor.

Considering that Indias continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baselines, the MoES undertook a programme of collecting the requisite information for delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, including the western offshore areas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. As part of this exercise, 100 Ocean Bottom Seismometers (OBS) were deployed for the first time by the country, with a significant retrieval rate of 92 per cent, and high-quality wide-angle seismic reflection and refraction data were obtained at critical locations.

The entire data acquisition programme was implemented in a round-the-clock operation spread over 2002-04 in which over 40 Indian scientists and officials participated. This was followed by the processing of data, its interpretation with rigorous quality checks and analysis, which were carried out concurrently at three national institutions.

The integration of the analytical results and their documentation in accordance with the scientific and technical guidelines of the CLCS were carried out at the NCAOR. The final documents were reviewed by a group of experts constituted by the MoES.

The studies have provided a wealth of data on the nature of the seabed and sub-seabed and can help the country plan endeavours in the oceanic realm. Under the provisions of the UNCLOS, a coastal state can exercise certain sovereign rights over its continental shelf, including exploration, exploitation, conservation, and management of living sedentary resources, such as clams, crabs, scallops, sponges and molluscs, and non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil, such as hydrocarbon resources.

Further detailed studies on the data collected are expected to provide the scientific community with answers to some of the long-debated questions as the origin of enigmatic features such as the 85{+o} East Ridge in the Bay of Bengal, the Laxmi and Laccadive Ridges in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Mannar, the offshore extent of the Deccan volcanics, the reasons for the association of gravity lows in the Bay of Bengal with structural highs, the development of the fans (accumulation of land-derived sediment on the deep seafloor) vis-a-vis the origin and the growth of the Himalayas.

With two of the worlds thickest accumulations of sediments on the seabed (the Indus Fan in the Arabian Sea and the Bengal Fan in the Bay of Bengal) derived from the Himalayas, the data gathered is expected to provide insights into areas such as marine ecosystems, unconventional energy and offshore mineral resources.

An increased understanding of the history and processes of the continental margin around us will also improve the assessment of hazards resulting from events such as earthquakes, submarine landslides and tsunamis.

India has filed its first partial submission for a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles to the CLCS. A second partial submission has also been finalised and is with the Ministry of External Affairs.

Indias claim extends the continental shelf to 350 km from the baseline. This will increase its sovereign marine area from 1 million sq km to 2.5 million sq km.

Indias seabed-sub-seabed area will become almost equal to its land area of 3.3 million sq km. In June 2007, India was elected to the CLCS. During 2007-08, the MoES undertook a bilateral programme to conduct geophysical surveys for Myanmar as required by the CLCS. A total of 2,759 line-km in the EEZ has been surveyed for Myanmar.

Clown fish at an exhibition of ornamental fish in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The CMLRE has standardised hatchery technology for five species of the popular fish.-S. JAMES

Centre for Marine Living Resources & Ecology: The MoES has started a project a field research station at Agatti island to develop hatchery technologies of marine ornamental fishes in order to protect the ecosystem and help the Lakshadweep islanders.

Ornamental fish trade, an expanding multi-million-dollar industry, relies almost exclusively on the collection of these animals from coral reef ecosystems, where they thrive. And the collection of these organisms is done extensively in Indian waters, which has raised concerns of irreversible damage to the entire reef ecosystem and depletion of the target species.

The project aims to standardise the hatchery technology of commercially important ornamental fishes, undertake stock enhancement and sea ranching of commercially in-demand and threatened species, train the local communities, set up backyard hatchery units for islanders for income generation and promote the market potential and trade of ornamental fishes.

A training course on hatchery technology for clown fish was organised recently at the CMLRE field station at Agatti. The institute has standardised hatchery technology for five species of clown fish, which are very popular among aquarists.

The export market of ornamental fishes has risen from $7.8 million in 1992 to $43.8 million in 2006. This and the reduced infrastructure and investment needed for ornamental fish culture make it an ideal source of livelihood on the islands.

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