INCOIS: India's lesser-known rockstar in monitoring oceans, forecasting disasters and monitoring fisheries

Raghu Murtugudde

Every Indian that cares to know daily, weakly or seasonal weather is most definitely familiar with the IMD, short for India Meteorological Department. This weather- and seismology observatory and forecasting arm of the government has a storied past, beginning with its establishment in Kolkata in 1875 with Henry Blanford as its first director. The IMD boasts of such big names as Sir Gilbert Walker and many Indians post-independence like Drs S K Banerji and P Koteswaram as its Directors.

Most Indians, however, have probably never heard of INCOIS, the organisation that does for the oceans what IMD has done (and continues to do) over land: monsoon and cyclone predictions, weather and climate predictions, and climate projections. INCOIS is short for the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services. The organisation was set up in 1998 under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) after an effort by Dr A Narendra Nath at the Department of Defence known as the PFZ or the Potential Fisheries Zone. INCOIS began operationalising sea surface temperature (SST) and PFZ forecasts immediately following its establishment with Dr K Radhakrishnan as its first director.

An enhanced satellite image showing Tropical Storm Florence in the Atlantic Ocean in Sept 2018. Image courtesy: NOAA

An enhanced satellite image showing Tropical Storm Florence in the Atlantic Ocean in Sept 2018. Image courtesy: NOAA

The vision for INCOIS was "to emerge as a knowledge and information technology enterprise for the oceanic realm". Its mission has been to provide ocean data, information and advisory services to society, industry, government and scientific community through sustained ocean observations and constant improvements through systematic and focused research.

India has a coastline of over 7500 kilometres with an area of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of over 2 million sq. km. The coastlines support more than 4 million fisherfolks with an estimated value of the output at about 40,000 crores. The long Indian coastline is also subject to natural hazards from waves, swells and cyclones to tsunamis. Naval operations and fisheries in the open ocean also require a suite of monitoring and forecasting efforts to protect the nation's shores and resources. INCOIS's wide spectrum of activities now extends far beyond just predicting SST and PFZ.

A tsunami warning system workshop for INCOIS members. Image: RPB Network

A tsunami warning system workshop for INCOIS members. Image: RPB Network

The status and trends of living resources in oceans must be monitored and understood to predict PFZ and developing adaptation and mitigation strategies for the future. PFZ activities focus on this important goal. Sea surface temperature (SST) is a critical parameter to keep track of before and during monsoons for cyclone potential, heat waves, etc. INCOIS is also tasked with providing early warnings for tsunamis and storm surges.

A nation's is only as resilient to natural hazards as the success of such early warning systems. Ocean and coastal state forecasting is a broad term that includes cyclones, waves, eddies, rings, fronts, filaments, currents, and sea levels in addition to SSTs. Numerous economic, defence, shipping and recreational activities, as well as search and rescue operations, depend on ocean weather or ocean state.

IMD issues cyclone track forecasts, the waves, storm surges, inundation and swells generated by regional cyclones. But it also needs to track other far-away ocean processes from oceans as far away from the mainland as the Southern Ocean for accurate models by INCOIS that could go a long way in saving citizens lives, property and infrastructure.

A ship stranded amid destruction after an earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia, near the mouth of the Sulawesi island. Image: Reuters

A ship stranded amid destruction after an earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia, near the mouth of the Sulawesi island. Image: Reuters

Such forecast systems also require extensive observational systems that include deploying ships routinely all the way to the Southern Ocean as well as moored buoys, autonomous floats, satellites, and coastal assets such as radars and Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers. INCOIS carries out very high-resolution atmospheric model simulations daily to produce accurate winds needed at minutes to hours for its various prediction systems.

INCOIS also manages the modelling and prediction efforts for coral reefs and chlorophyll mapping to monitor and assess ecosystem health. This task also involves measuring trace metal fluxes of aluminium, iron, magnesium, titanium and barium which are indicators of the ecosystem health as well as the export of carbon to the deep ocean. The reversing monsoon circulation makes India a unique land-ocean continuum where the carbon fluxes between the ocean and atmosphere, land and atmosphere, as well as land and ocean must all be understood to keep an accurate track of the carbon cycle, emissions and how they evolution in the future.

A stellar example of the value INCOIS provides is the impact of PFZ on the fish catch and its monetary value. Experiments with fishermen who received PFZ forecasts and those who didn't have shown that fish catch can be four times higher when PFZ forecast information is available (for some perspective, that's 7200 Kgs vs 1800 kgs) and the value of the fish catch also can be increased similarly (Rs 3,60,000 vs Rs 90,000).

Today, INCOIS is called upon to track coastal pollution, oil spills, wave power potential, as well as coastal erosion alongside ocean monitoring. It employs many different platforms to disseminate its products, such as Village Information Centers, All India Radio, Hello FM, websites, TV channels, SMS and email. The operational Center for Ocean State Forecasting at INCOIS resembles a control station of space operations at the Indian Space Research Organisation.

All students, teachers, and citizens ought to visit INCOIS at Pragati Nagar, Hyderabad to feel the excitement of this invaluable operation, which works 24x7 in service of nation's ocean resources, hazards, and defence. It also happens that this army of ocean and coastal forecasters offer plenty of exciting opportunities in education, employment and research.

The author is a Professor of Atmospheric & Oceanic Science and Earth System Science at the University of Maryland, currently a Visiting Professor at IIT Bombay.


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