A high-tech monsoon experiment in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in which British scientists will release underwater robotic vehicles, called gliders, and monitor them through aircraft packed with instruments has been security cleared at the highest level, a senior government official has said - but questions still remain.
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The month-long air-sea campaign, slated to begin on June 24, will see the deployment of two ships, six gliders (diving to 500 metres every two hours) and eight floats (automated submersibles) that can rise and descend to 2,000 metres.
Together with the sophisticated instruments aboard a special aircraft, they will collect a range of atmospheric and oceanic data that the British scientists claim will help forecast the arrival and intensity of the Indian monsoon "more accurately than ever before."
Besides the fact that BoB is strategically crucial for India, oceanography and meteorology (weather) are two of seven research areas considered by the government to be militarily "sensitive".
Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had in 1975 stipulated that "investigations in these areas by foreigners or by foreign assisted programmes should be subjected to the most careful and comprehensive scrutiny" from the security angle before granting approval.
When asked to comment on the British initiative, Madhavan Rajeevan, secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), said it "has taken all the approvals and clearances from the highest level".
The $11 million project cost "is equally shared between MoES and Britain's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)", Rajeevan told this correspondent.
Foreign collaborations in ocean and weather science have always set off warning signals in India's defence community due to past experiences.
For instance, in 1964, the United States, under a weather programme called "Nomad," placed an instrument "package" on a buoy anchored in the Bay of Bengal.
It was supposed to continuously record and transmit wind speed, temperature and other weather data. But the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) received the data only for four days and no one in IMD is sure about the fate of the package or if it had any other undisclosed mission.
Before Nomad, there was another collaborative programme under which the US sent an aircraft supposedly carrying equipment to collect weather data. The instrument-packed aircraft criss-crossed the subcontinent for eight weeks and returned to the US without sharing the data collected.
The Indian Ocean expedition in the mid-1960s, in which the US and India collaborated was another such project. Primary data collected was sent to the University of Hawaii for analysis and what Indian collaborators got was a basket-load of algae and sea weeds collected by the ship in the Arabian sea.
India had also been wary about sharing weather and atmospheric data collected by its Insat satellites over the Indian Ocean. It resisted for more than a decade sharing this data with the United States on a "real-time basis" but agreed to do so in 1998 only on certain conditions.
But any security concerns in the coming experiment was dismissed by Professor P.N. Vinayachandran at Bengaluru's Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a principal investigator who will lead the expedition.
The ship in which he will be sailing with the British team "will confine itself to international waters," he told this correspondent, adding it is a "collaborative" project.
"All the floats will be outside the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of the coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean," Brian King, a scientist in the British team said in an email. Although the gliders released from the ship will beam the data directly to Britain, they will be re-transmitted "to global data distribution centres, where they are freely available to anyone in the world," he said.
This is not the first experiment conducted in BoB to understand the monsoon. In 1999, during the peak monsoon period (July-August), India had carried out on its own a study with participation of 80 scientists from 15 different institutions making simultaneous observations from ships and moored buoys.
Prior to this, there were two collaborative experiments: MONSOON-77 (in 1977) and MONEX-79 (in 1979) in which aircraft, research vessels, floating balloons and a geostationary satellite were used. During November-December 2013, under a project promoted by the US Office of Naval Research, its ship R/V Roger Reveller made a detailed survey of BoB using another modern instrument called "Underway-CTD" system.
Will the new experiment "improve rainfall prediction and revolutionise subsistence farming" as claimed by the British scientists?
A leading Indian oceanographer, who refuses to be named, is skeptical.
"If probing the Bay of Bengal alone would unravel the dynamics of the Indian monsoon, why does it remain a mystery despite all these experiments done till now? Understanding BoB is important but it is not the only player," the scientist said.
Vinayachandran said that use of gliders for the first time will make a difference but admitted that accurate monsoon forecasting will take time. The primary aim of the project is to understand why the ocean and atmosphere in the eastern and western parts of the BoB "have completely contrasting characteristics".
Rajeevan was also candid. "We cannot guarantee that next year's monsoon forecast will improve," he said in an email, adding: "But the experiment definitely will help us to improve the forecasts."
"While improved forecast is not guaranteed, what is certain is the company making the gliders will be selling them to us," the unnamed oceanographer said. He was not off the mark.
Rajeevan confirmed that his ministry is going to buy an aircraft of the kind used during the experiment.
"It will arrive in the next two years," he said on the telephone.
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That the project will have a commercial spin-off was anticipated by the British team. The University of Reading, the British lead organization in the project, said in a statement: "Weather forecasters both in government agencies and commercial companies around the world will benefit from BoBBLE (Bay of Bengal Boundary Layer Experiment).