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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Experiencing the majestic monsoon

In the spring, when I first started reporting, by phone, on the South Asian monsoon for an article that was published this week, some of the people I talked to encouraged me to come to India to experience the rainy season for myself.

“Come get drenched,” said Ranjan Kelkar, a former head of the India Meteorological Department.

So I went. But I didn’t get drenched.

That’s one of the many things I learned about the monsoon during my two weeks traveling around India in August. It’s not a miasma of moisture that settles like a blanket over the whole subcontinent from June to September, bringing constant precipitation.

Instead, monsoon rains come and go, here and there. When I was visiting villages in Maharashtra State, east of Mumbai, there were only a few sprinkles, and one of the farmers I talked to, Bhagwat Gagre, was worried about his crops if the dryness continued. At the same time, to the northwest, Pakistan was getting hammered by torrential rains that flooded much of the country and killed more than 1,500 people.

That characteristic of the monsoon, localized heavy downpours followed by periods of dryness, is changing as the world warms. More rain is falling in less time, and the dry periods are lengthening, as Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist, told me when I visited him at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.

That makes the monsoon less dependable and spells trouble in a region that is home to about 1.8 billion people, or one-quarter of humanity.

The main reason for the change is that warmer air holds more moisture — about 7 percent more for each 1 degree Celsius of warming. That holds true not just for the Indian subcontinent, but elsewhere in the world. Hurricane Ian, which struck Florida with such fury last week, dumped about 10 percent more rain than it would have in a world without warming, according to one quick analysis.

In South Asia, there is plenty of moisture available for the warmer air to hold. That’s a function of the mechanism of the monsoon, which my graphics colleagues, Jeremy White and Zach Levitt, illustrated with such skill for the article. Heating of the land in spring and summer results in an inflow of air from the Arabian Sea. And, evaporation in the Arabian Sea is a practically inexhaustible source of moisture.

In its four months, the monsoon provides most of India’s water. So any changes in how and when the rains do and don’t come can have huge effects. For cities, heavier downpours create further problems for flood-control infrastructure that is chronically insufficient. Bengalaru, formerly known as Bangalore, with a metro-area population of 13 million, found that out the hard way this summer, experiencing major floods.

For farmers like Gagre, too much water too quickly can mean that much of it is lost, flowing into rivers and streams and thus unavailable as groundwater later in the year. Much of my time in his village and others was spent seeing and talking about efforts to conserve water, undertaken with the help of a nonprofit group, the Watershed Organization Trust.

Those efforts include altering landscapes by digging trenches on slopes and planting more trees to slow runoff so that more water percolates into the ground. But they also include educational efforts like teaching villagers how to develop a water budget for the year, how to monitor groundwater and how to change crops and planting methods to use less water.

All of these steps are crucial in villages like Gagre’s, which in the past would run out of water in January or February, several months before the rains would return. For me, it was fascinating to see and learn about. I wouldn’t even have minded getting drenched.


Coming up next Thursday: Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic at The New York Times, explores the environmental impact of Fashion Week. Can it ever be truly sustainable? You can register to watch for free.


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