The weather 'applet’— a small programme designed to run within a bigger application — was developed by a team from the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in southern India and the University of Leeds, UK.
The automated system made accurate forecasts on Cyclone Phailin brewing in the Bay of Bengal and heading towards India's east coast last October. The forecasts were available to “fishermen and farmers, ordinary citizens and tourists,” the team reported in Atmospheric Science Letters published last month (December).
Phailin, classified by the India Meteorological Department as a category 5 or 'very severe’ cyclonic storm claimed 23 lives in India, and affected 12 million people in India, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand.
The relatively small death toll in India is attributed to the successful mass evacuation of 800,000 people in less than 48 hours.
“The easy-to-use Weather Research Forecasting (WRF) model remains confined to an elite group of users, such as atmospheric scientists and weather forecasters,” Satyajit Ghosh, senior professor, school of mechanical and building sciences at VIT, said in a press release.
“Our research explores how the WRF forecast can be interfaced with mobile telephony which has deep penetration even in the rural pockets of India,” Ghosh tells SciDev.Net
Most Indians get their weather forecasts over television or radio, which are typically broadcast a day in advance. With the mobile app, forecasts can reach India’s cell phone subscribers, whose numbers are estimated to swell from the present 930 million to 1.15 billion by the end of 2014, the authors say.
The forecast app can also be made available offline, using text and multimedia messaging that involves images and local Indian languages.
Saurabh Dani, senior disaster risk management specialist with the World Bank in India, says that the app addresses the first stage of disaster warning — broadcasting. The second stage requires an advisory on whether local people should stay put, or leave, he tells SciDev.Net.
However, Dani cautions that the system does not replace an official alert system. “You don’t want someone randomly sending forecasts.”
Dani also warns against a disaster alert system that depends solely on cell phones. “Mobile telephone towers usually cannot withstand wind speeds that are more than 200 kilometres per hour,” he observes.
Link to abstract in Atmospheric Science Letters