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Cyclone in Mumbai Highlights
For most megacities globally, 200 mm rainfall in a few hours may sound like once in a decade event. However, for Mumbai, such episodes of weighty rains are a reasonably common yearly experience during monsoon months.
It is becoming the strongest tropical storm to skirt across Mumbai in at least five decades. Such an intense storm has not come so close to the commercial capital. The storm’s eye was 150 km away from Mumbai—at least since the satellite data became available in the 1970s.
Wettest May day on record
Over the past 24 hours from many Mumbai places, like Juhu Airport and Ram Mandir, register a whopping 300+ mm rainfall. The base station at Santacruz also witnesses 215 mm rain within 12 hours from 8.30 am to 8.30 pm.
Such rainfall fissures in May are unheard of even for Mumbai. Monday marked the highest amount of rainfall recorded on a Mayday since bookkeeping started in the 19th century. The previous all-time high was 191 mm recorded 21 years ago on May 20, 2000. In the last ten years, it had not rained more than a mere 3 mm on any day in May.
Strong winds sweep Mumbai.
In addition to a torrential downpour of more than 200 mm within 12 hours and over a meter high storm surge, the cyclone induced infrequent, powerful, gusty winds of more than 100 Kmph across the coastal city. Recorded a maximum wind speed of 108 mph at the monitoring station at Colaba on Monday is perhaps the highest recorded wind gust at least in the last 70 years.
The storm uprooted more than 600 trees across the city. As the resultant storm surge pushed high tidal waves against the fortunately deserted coast, gale winds and heavy rains destroyed thousands of homes. They disrupted the electricity supply and the city traffic.
Most Arabian Sea cyclones tracked either towards Gujarat or migrated west towards the Arabian Peninsula. Strikes around Mumbai have been rare, mainly due to the prevailing meteorological conditions during both pre-and post-monsoon cyclone season. According to US agency NOAA’s database, only five hurricane-strength cyclones have tracked within 100 km of Mumbai in records dating to 1903.
Is Mumbai’s luck running out?
In early June 2020, Cyclone Nisarga became the most robust cyclone to hit Maharashtra in June as it made landfall south of Mumbai as a severe cyclonic storm, mainly sparing the city. Before that, 1948 was the last time another hurricane-strength cyclone tracked close to Mumbai.
Two intense tropical cyclones attaining such proximity to Mumbai within 12 months raises the question, can densely-populated Mumbai city be a target in the future?
Explaining why Cyclone Tauktae would not make landfall over Maharashtra, Dr. Sridhar Balasubramanian, an Associate Professor at IIT Bombay, said that, along with winds, cyclones are steered by the mid-and upper-level ridges (high-pressure zones). One such ridge, which usually lies over Central India during May, prevented Tauktae from turning towards Maharashtra.
However, as the monsoon approaches, this ridge usually moves farther north or east, as happened during Cyclone Nisarga in June 2020. Therefore, an intense Arabian Sea cyclone forming at some other time of the year could very well move towards Mumbai.
Cyclone hazard for Mumbai
To determine the tropical cyclone hazard for Mumbai, researchers at Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune, carried out a simulation study that was published in the reputed journal Monthly Weather Review in 2019. The results suggest that it is certainly plausible that a Category 3 or stronger cyclone can hit Mumbai or the surrounding region this century. And that study does not consider climate change.
Evidence is heavy stakes that the sea surface temperatures over the Arabian Sea are increasing drastically over the past few decades. Climate change leads to an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones in the Arabian Sea. Explains Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, is a Climate Scientist at the IITM for a region where more than two crore people fill in 600 sq. km of area, a growing cyclone threat in its proximity is always bad news.
The rapid increase in strength
What’s even more concerning is the growing trend of rapid intensification of cyclones over the North Indian Ocean in recent years. In recent years, tropical cyclones in this basic turn from depression to a highly severe storm within 24-48 hours.
“State-of-the-art cyclone models are unable to pick this rapid intensification because they do not incorporate the ocean dynamics accurately. This is hence a forecasting challenge that we need to work on,” says Dr. Koll.
Forecasting the rate of cyclone intensification is not easy. It was more evident than ever in the case of Cyclone Tauktae. Until Sunday, most forecasters expected that the calmer waters south of the Gujarat coast would weaken Cyclone Tauktae before landfall. The whole strength forecast for the storm was a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm (VSCS). However, within 48 hours of its formation, Tauktae intensified into an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm (ESCS) on Sunday, taking forecasters by surprise.
While the storm did weaken as it approached the land on Monday, it did not lose its intensity of ESCS until the hurricane’s eye touched the ground on Monday night.
Moving forward, a combination of factors like warming oceans, rising sea levels, climate change, rapid intensification, and changing meteorological conditions increase the risk of cyclones for Mumbai. On the other hand, our forecasting capabilities have also grown exponentially over the past few decades, and that has saved thousands of lives in recent years.
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