India to launch $75m mission to forecast rains

Indian washers try to fold a plastic sheet during a monsoon shower in Mumbai, India, Sunday, June 24, 2012. Experts say scientists all over the world struggle to forecast weather patterns

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India is launching a $75m (£48m) research project using computer models to understand the south-west monsoon and forecast the rains more accurately, officials say.

India receives 80% of its annual rainfall during the summer monsoon between June and September.

A major shortfall in rain can trigger drought, which is potentially ruinous for India's 235 million farmers.

There have been reports that this year's monsoon has been poor.

"Understanding the monsoon will be a major priority of the government for the next five years," says Shailesh Nayak, a senior official in the ministry of earth sciences.

He said the "mosoon mission" will try to understand the rains using computer models developed by the UK and the US and by gathering fresh data.

Forecasting the monsoon is a tricky task, as India's meteorologists have discovered time and again.

Last year they predicted a bad monsoon, but in the end the rains turned out to be in excess of what was forecast.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) admitted later that it was "not very accurate" in its forecasts.

In its 137-year history the IMD has never been able to predict a drought or a flood - the two extremes of a monsoon season - successfully.

Experts say scientists all over the world struggle to forecast weather patterns.

They say the IMD does a "commendable job, putting its reputation on the block" by making monsoon forecasts every year.

Monsoon watchers like Prof J Srinivasan from the Indian Institute of Science says seasonal forecasts for drought and floods are relatively accurate for the Sub-Saharan region in Africa, but no agency in the world has ever been able to predict a drought or flood for the Indian region.

The US weather office also struggles to predict droughts for North America but there have been occasions where they have been able to make seasonal drought forecasts, experts say.

Pallava Bagla is a correspondent for Science magazine

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