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The South Asia Monsoon Is Becoming More Extreme

The Monsoon Is Becoming More Extreme

South Asia’s monsoon is inextricably linked, culturally and economically, to much of Asia. Climate change is making it increasingly violent and erratic.

Henry Fountain, a Times climate reporter, and Saumya Khandelwal, a photographer, traveled across India to examine the causes and consequences of the changing monsoon. Maps by Zach Levitt and Jeremy White.

Like all of India’s tens of millions of small farmers whose lives depend on the annual monsoon, Bhagwat Gagre keeps a firm eye on the sky.

At his village in the shadow of the Western Ghats mountain range, the rainy season usually starts in June. Winds over the subcontinent reverse, as they have for millennia, carrying clouds ripe with water from the Arabian Sea up over the Ghats, soaking Mr. Gagre’s tiny farm in Kumbharwadi and ensuring that the crops that he and his wife sow will have the rain they need.

Now, however, across South Asia, climate change is making the monsoon more erratic, less dependable and even dangerous, with more violent rainfall as well as worsening dry spells. For a region home to nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, the consequences are dire.

At Mr. Gagre’s farm in late August, dryness was the problem — the monsoon had begun to feel all but absent. “If we don’t get rain in the next 15 or 20 days,” he said, gesturing to his fields, “productivity will go down 50 percent.”

In other parts of South Asia, the problem was too much rain, too quickly. Pakistan, to India’s northwest, was struck by relentless downpours, leaving much of the nation underwater and killing at least 1,500 people. In Bengaluru, India’s tech capital, devastating rains in early September forced workers to use boats instead of cars in the streets.

Mumbai and the monsoon.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Bhagwat Gagre depends on the rain for his livelihood.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Scientists blame global warming from the burning of fossil fuels for the changes in the monsoon. Computer models suggest that as this warming continues, the monsoon will strengthen, with more rain overall.

But the scientists also see what farmers like Mr. Gagre are experiencing: greater uncertainty.

“The heavy rainfall events are increasing at a rapid pace,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.That is a very, very clear shift that we see in monsoon patterns.”

But the monsoon is much more than rain — it’s a collective mood, a shared experience across communities and across time, and deeply ingrained. Artists and poets have tried to capture it for centuries. Novelists use it as a plot device, and it provides rainy, romantic interludes in countless Bollywood movies. And the monsoon is an economic force, particularly for the small farmers who get three-quarters, or more, of their annual rainfall from it.

A good monsoon can bring plenty, a bad monsoon, hardship. And in the past, a terrible monsoon could bring famine.

The monsoon is becoming more erratic because of a basic bit of science: Warmer air holds more moisture. The moisture accumulates in the atmosphere and can stay there longer, increasing the length of dry spells. But then, when it does rain, “it dumps all that moisture in a very short time,” Dr. Koll said. “It can be a month’s rainfall or a week’s rainfall in a few hours to a few days.”

A holiday celebration in Mumbai on a wet September evening.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Roxy Mathew Koll sees “a very, very clear shift” in monsoon patterns.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Mr. Gagre farms in a drylands region. Because he lives in the shadow of the Ghats, the monsoon brings less rain — the mountains wring most of the moisture from the clouds before it can reach his farm. For him, longer dry spells are a big threat.

To cope, villagers have dug long, meandering trenches by hand along the hillsides, the better to catch the rain that falls, prevent it from running off into streams and give it time to soak into the ground. That has helped to keep local wells from drying up after the monsoon is over.

And if the trenches and other water-conservation efforts had not worked? “Nobody would be living here today,” Mr. Gagre said.

The Monsoon Palace, built by royalty to admire the season.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

In the 1870s, Sajjan Singh, the teenage ruler of the Mewar region in western India, ordered the construction of a marble palace on a rugged hill above the lake city of Udaipur. The monsoon for him was a source of fascination, and the new palace would be a fine place to watch the clouds roll in.

Sajjan Singh didn’t live to see it finished — he died at 26, perhaps, it’s been said, of drink — but the building was completed by his successor. Tourists, mostly from India’s burgeoning middle class, are drawn to it today, cramming into taxis for the winding, bumpy ride up the hill.

Known as the Monsoon Palace, its eastern side offers a sweeping view of Udaipur and its glistening waters. But in summer the view from the opposite side is equally spectacular: the approach of moisture-laden monsoon clouds, scudding across the sky.

Those clouds are borne on winds from the southwest. And for a long time, that was most of what was known about the monsoon — it was caused by a shift in the winds that occurred in late spring and continued through summer. At least as far back as the first century, sailors had learned to take advantage of these winds, riding them from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to India.

The view from the Monsoon Palace.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Outside, the sky. Inside, statues of wildlife.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Edmond Halley, the English astronomer and meteorologist best known for the comet that bears his name, finally described the monsoon’s mechanism. The shift in the winds — the arrival of rain — was caused by seasonal changes in the relationship between ocean and land temperatures.

He was right. And remarkably, “His theory was entirely based on hearsay evidence,” said Ranjan Kelkar, a student of the monsoon who headed the India Meteorological Department from 1998 to 2003. “Halley had never come to India.”

By the time the Monsoon Palace was built, there was plenty of direct evidence. This was largely thanks to the British East India Company, which ruled the country for a century, until the mid-1800s. The company “did many bad things, but among the good things was that it set up rain gauges and observatories,” Dr. Kelkar said.

A succession of British, and later Indian, scientists divined more details of the monsoon, including how the rains occur as the moist ocean air hits the subcontinent, rises and cools, and the moisture condenses into raindrops.

Scientists now know that the monsoon is quite complex. Other theories of how it originates have been developed, including one that ties the monsoon to the northward shift of a zone of trade winds. But the basics, as Halley outlined, remain. An engine that drives it is the temperature difference between land and ocean.

In spring, as the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, the subcontinent heats faster than the ocean. As the air over the land warms, the air pressure drops, which draws in higher-pressure air from the ocean. “That temperature difference creates this pressure difference that drives this moisture-laden air from the ocean toward the land,” Dr. Koll said. The rotation of the earth gives these winds their direction.

But that’s only part of the story, said Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “The moment the first rain falls, the land gets cooled,” he said.

That would be expected to stop, or at least slow, the monsoon, by reducing the temperature difference between land and ocean. But there’s now another source of warmth over the land: the condensation of water vapor into droplets, which releases heat. That maintains the temperature difference and keeps the monsoon going.

This self-sustaining feature is important, Dr. Levermann said, because it suggests that, as the world keeps getting warmer, year-to-year variability of the monsoon could increase. “Once you have started the monsoon strong, it will become even stronger,” he said. “Once you have started the monsoon weak, it will become weaker.”

Evening in the city.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Daytime at a rural school a few hours outside Mumbai.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Over the centuries the subcontinent has experienced weak or “failed” monsoons, in which the overall amount of rain is 20 percent to 30 percent lower than average. A failed monsoon in 1899 led to the deaths of 9 million people in central India, by some estimates.

In the middle of the 20th century, foreign aid helped India get through poor monsoons without famine. Since then, improvements in agriculture have made a big difference.

Dr. Kelkar remembers some bad monsoons in the 1960s, when he was in his 20s. “There was failure after failure,” he said. “And the only way to solve the problem was to import wheat from abroad.”

“I used to stand in line at a ration shop, and get my food grains for a week.” It was the kind of monsoon crisis, affecting millions, that no one would like to see repeated.

In a country obsessed with the monsoon, Rajendra Jenamani plays a crucial role.

Dr. Jenamani is a senior scientist with the national forecasting center at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi. One of his jobs, in consultation with his colleagues, is to determine when the year’s monsoon has actually begun.

It is a decision that the nation tracks closely. The monsoon’s march across the subcontinent is front-page news for days on end. Television anchors ask again and again, will it be early this year? Late? When will we know?

Mr. Jenamani and his co-workers make this weighty call in a room that might easily be mistaken for a company’s IT department: Shiny white floor, glaring overhead lights, arrays of computer screens and a few floor fans to help fight back the New Delhi heat.

For the start to be declared, there’s a set of criteria that must be met at weather stations in the state of Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast, involving precipitation, cloud cover as well as wind speed and direction.

Of those criteria, Dr. Jenamani said, “Number One is the rainfall.” No matter the state of the wind and clouds, he said, “how can you tell the farmers that the monsoon has come if there isn’t any rain?”

Animated map showing daily accumulated rainfall in India and Southeast Asia for the monsoon season between May 29 and Aug. 31, 2022.

But if the criteria are met, Dr. Jenamani consults with his colleagues and also puts a question to forecasters in Kerala: Do you have any doubts that the monsoon has arrived? “And they say, ‘No, no, no, this is the right time,’” he said.

Only then does Dr. Jenamani head upstairs to brief his boss. The news media gathers in the lobby, and a formal announcement is made.

Thereafter, at 10:30 each morning, as the monsoon progresses, Dr. Jenamani leads a meeting of the forecasters and analysts in his office, joined by several dozen regional meteorologists on large screens along one wall, to discuss that day’s forecast.

This year’s onset was declared on May 29, a few days ahead of normal. By the first week of July, the monsoon covered the entire country. Withdrawal began in mid-September.

The monsoon’s south-to-north migration means that, for extreme northwestern India, the rainy season lasts only two months, about half the duration in cities that are much farther south like Mumbai or Chennai. Whatever the location, however, the monsoon will account for up to 80 percent of the water received during 2022.

“So this is all our life,” Dr. Jenamani said. “This is all our water.”

‘Make the water walk’

A wall not far from Mr. Gagre’s property: “I am a drop of water, and I will stay here.”

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

The hand-dug trenches that line the hills around Mr. Gagre’s farm have helped transform his village.

When it comes to rainfall, the idea is a simple one: “Capture whatever you can,” said Crispino Lobo, who co-founded the Watershed Organization Trust, a group that aids monsoon-dependent farmers in Kumbharwadi and hundreds of other villages in trench-digging and other water-conservation efforts to make the most of their increasingly erratic supply.

As warming brings more extreme downpours, it becomes harder to ensure that most of the water stays on the land instead of running off into streams and rivers.

The trenches prevent precious water from rushing away so easily, Mr. Lobo said, “You slow it down, you make it walk.” That helps give it a chance to seep into the water table and be available from wells during the dry months.

Scene from a village in the region. Plentiful water is particularly important for rice.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

A handmade map of groundwater flow around Kumbharwadi.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

In a very real way, the hand-dug trenches have achieved far more than preserving water. In an increasingly erratic monsoon, they’ve helped keep Mr. Gagre’s village alive and thriving.

In Kumbharwadi, Mr. Gagre said, before the trenches were dug, often there would be no water after January or February, even when there were good monsoons. Every year for months at a time, people were forced to leave their homes in search of work.

A warning system run by kids

“We saved the lives of 200 families.” Students with a rain gauge they use to track flooding.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Far to the south, in Kerala, schoolchildren are doing a different kind of work: helping to monitor the threat of flooding from the monsoon’s heavy downpours.

Every morning at St. Joseph’s Upper Primary School in the hilly village of Malayinchippara, at the 8:30 assembly, some of the 100 students take a reading from a simple cylindrical rain gauge, installed in 2020. They enter how much rain has fallen in a WhatsApp group set up by other volunteers.

It’s combined with data from similar gauges in the region to provide a picture of the state of the Meenachil River, which passes about 5 miles from the school and is prone to disastrous flooding in its lower reaches.

“It’s a good thing,” said Ananyamol Thomas, a 7th grader. “Maybe our rain gauge can help alert the authorities to evacuate people in vulnerable areas.”

The citizen-science project is organized by a local group, the Meenachil River Protection Council. Eby Emmanuel, the group’s secretary, said the rain-monitoring work began informally about five years ago. It’s now grown to include 220 gauges. Many are at schools but farmers and environmental activists have them as well. At St. Joseph’s, the project has been so popular that there are now rain gauges at the homes of four students.

Eby Emmanuel near a measuring stick for tracking the river’s height.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Rainfall data collected by the schoolchildren.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Dr. Koll of the tropical meteorology institute in Pune, who has been involved in the effort, said because there are so many gauges, a lot of data is collected over a relatively small area.

“This is quite important because when we talk of these kinds of cloudburst downpours, it’s very localized,” he said. With all the data from gauges near the Meenachil, “you can tell that in three or four hours the river might swell.”

The project has already had some successes, Mr. Emmanuel said. In 2019, rain gauge data during one monsoon storm suggested that the river would soon be rising, and rapidly. Members of the protection council recognized that a community of about 200 families, densely packed into a low-lying stretch along the river, were at risk.

They managed to persuade a rescue brigade that the community should be evacuated. They were — and in time to escape the floodwaters.

“We saved the lives of 200 families,” Mr. Emmanuel said. “That was a big moment for us.”

“Everything changes.” Dr. Kelkar at home in Pune.

Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Dr. Kelkar, who is 79, lives in Pune now, having taught at a local university after leaving Delhi and the India Meteorological Department two decades ago. He retired for good in 2008 and lives a quiet life, writing and occasionally lecturing about various subjects, including the monsoon.

In the living room of his spare 10th-floor apartment he keeps a few shelves of monsoon books, not only the scientific treatises and histories one might expect, but also a lyric poem by a 5th-century writer, Kalidasa, in which a mythical spirit asks a monsoon cloud to send a message to his love.

After years focusing on science, Dr. Kelkar now takes a more spiritual approach to the monsoon.

For him, the arrival of the rains is less about how many weather stations have reported precipitation, and more about the senses and emotions. The abrupt shift in the wind. The sound of thunder, like a beating drum. The smell when the first raindrops hit the parched soil, kicking up dust. The sight of the land turning, with almost chameleon-like speed, from brown to a lush green.

“When the monsoon arrives, everything changes,” he said. “You know that this is not a normal day.”

Off his small kitchen is a balcony that offers a view to the south and west. It’s Dr. Kelkar’s own Monsoon Palace.

“I come out here every hour just to let things soak in,” he said one late August afternoon, as the clouds approached and passed overhead, sparing Pune their rain this time. “You really feel that things are pretty much good.”

Additional credits

Produced by Claire O’Neill, Jesse Pesta and Matt Ruby.

Photo editing by Matt McCann.

M.S. Amritha and N. Krishna contributed reporting from Kerala.

Sources and methodology

Present and future precipitation data, as well as present wind speed and direction data, provided by Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Present rainfall data show average conditions in mid-August between 1995 and 2014. Future precipitation data show projected averages for the same period in mid-August between 2081 and 2100. Present wind speed and direction data show average conditions for 10-day time spans between March and October for 1995 through 2014.

Daily accumulated rainfall data for 2022 from the Climate Hazards Group at U.C. Santa Barbara.

Elevations in the Western Ghats map are exaggerated for illustrative purposes.

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