News 2019: Tracking Cyclone Fani

News 2019: Tracking Cyclone Fani
Tracking Cyclone Fani

UMassD professor Avijit Gangopadhyay explains how advanced communication systems, computer technology, & ocean technology played a major role in saving millions of lives during the recent cyclone in India.

Image of a cyclone from space

When it comes to cyclones, there’s a strong link between advanced communication systems, computer technology, and ocean technology. Together they have the ability to save lives. Dr. Avijit Gangopadhyay, professor of estuarine and ocean sciences at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST), weighs in on the impact of these three distinct types of modern technology.

On May 3, 2019, Cyclone Fani struck Odisha, a state in India with a population of nearly 46 million individuals. “The 157-mile-per-hour cyclone was classified as a category 4 or 5, mirroring the force of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria,” said Gangopadhyay.

Partnering with ocean science institutions

Professor Gopal C. Mitra, a professor of Industrial Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IITKGP) came up with the idea of placing shelters in various remote locations, where people who didn’t have access to the trains that serve to transport the evacuees outside of the danger zone. 

“About 2 million people live in the region where Fani occurred, 11 districts along the state of Odisha were placed on red alert, and 900 shelters were set up to house evacuees. These shelters were real blessings for people to go and seek safety in safe havens,” said Gangopadhyay.

Through a partnership between IITKGP and UMass Dartmouth, SMAST ocean scientists assisted IIT to build a center for ocean sciences. The ability of forecasting with weather modeling along with mitigation through this initiative played an integral part in saving lives during Cyclone Fani. 

“Unfortunately, 14 people lost their lives in Fani,” said Gangopadhyay. “But there is hope as we see progress due to science and research. Compare this to the year 1999 when the Odisha Super Cyclone occurred and more than 10,000 individuals lost their lives. Twenty years later, Cyclone Fani, which occurred in the same location as the Odisha Super Cyclone, affected many fewer lives due to the availability of advanced ocean technology.

cyclone fani

Fusing communication with technology to save lives

Forecasts for Fani were issued five days ahead of the cyclone. Climate science faculty at IIT Bhubaneswar’s School of Earth, Ocean, & Climate Sciences, another SMAST partner, predicted the landfall location of Fani. “Issuing the forecast even five days in advance resulted in fishermen being aware of their need to leave the ocean for safety.”

While computers were available during Odisha Super Cyclone, technology was not as sophisticated as it is today. “During Cyclone Fani, about 1 million lives were saved because of the efforts of IITKGP, the government, NOAA, IIT Bhubaneswar, weather forecasting Centers in India including the Indian Met Department and all of the observation capabilities of satellites and in use of the internet to communicate,” Gangopadhyay explained.

The impact of the ability to use ocean and weather modeling and communication efforts to save lives is also significant in comparison to Cyclone Bhola in the 1970s. “About half of a million people lost their lives nearly 50 years ago when we did not have satellites or computer technology with modeling capabilities to forecast cyclones,” Gangopadhyay said.

“That’s the power of science – satellites, modeling, and observations are helping to save lives in a way that couldn’t be done in the 1970s and the 1990s. Science and communication together can really save lives. You can’t mitigate something if you don’t know when and where it’s coming.”