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    South Asia
     Jul 14, 2011


India, China share a monsoon tango
By Raja Murthy

MUMBAI - As the monsoon grips Mumbai, and July days are filled with grey skies, the pattering melody of rain, spicy snacks and hot tea, weather scientists say China's and India's monsoons have been interlinked in various ways since ancient times.

This millennia-old monsoon connection across thousands of kilometers, which is called a teleconnection in climate science, influences the most critical annual event in China and India. Agriculture production, drinking water, the economy and political fortunes depend on "normal" rains each year.

Understanding and predicting monsoon behavior is a huge matter of life or death in China and India, more so with the two countries being home for over one-third of humanity.

Researchers in the United States and China analyzing the Indian

 
and Chinese summer monsoon found shared climatic equations that influence rainfall strength. For example, both countries are similarly affected by any Sea Surface Temperature anomaly (SSTa) - changes in the average temperature at the top millimeter of ocean surface. A cold SSTa over Indonesia would produce more rainfall in India and South China.

"The joint rainfall pattern [under certain climatic conditions, such as tropical temperatures and wind speed over the Indian Ocean] is roughly uniform over India," says the study by a research team from the Columbia University in New York and the Tsinghua University in Beijing, China [1]. "Over China, on the other hand, the rainfall pattern [under the same climatic conditions] is uniform along east-west direction but varies from the North to the South of China."

A weak monsoon phase in India causes heavier rainfall in some parts of China, particularly the Yangtze River. At the same time, northern China gets less rainfall.

Overall, the summer monsoon months of June to September account for 65% to 80% of total annual rainfall in India, and 60% to 85% of annual rainfall in China - the months of life that provide water.

India and China share an ancient, interlinked monsoon dependency. The Science Journal issue of July 1, 2011 reported stalagmites from caves in China containing an incredible record of changes in rainfall across thousands of years. For instance, any cooling in the northern hemispheric strengthens the Chinese monsoon and weakens the Indian monsoon.

With the new findings of rainfall patterns, the Chinese stalagmites - or icicles stretching up from the floor of the cave to the ceiling - turn into history chapters of the Indian monsoon in past millennia.

Stalagmites [2] are created from rainwater slowly dripping through caves. Scientists measure rainfall in a particular year by studying the isotopes, or variants of atoms, of oxygen deposited in a stalagmite.

Stalagmites studies in China revealed monsoons causing the rise and fall of empires. An old Chinese belief held that emperors needed a "mandate of heaven" to rule with wisdom and justice. If the emperors turned corrupt tyrants, the heavenly license to rule was withdrawn. And indicator of such celestial displeasure, people figured, was a missing monsoon.

In 2008, a Chinese and American team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and Lanzhou University in China analyzed a 4.65 inch (11.8 centimeter) chunk of a stalagmite found in the Wangxiang Cave, near the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in Gansu province. The stalagmite was 1,810 years old. The varying chemical composition of oxygen isotopes in its layers revealed the relative strength of monsoon rains for over 1,000 years.

The researchers were stunned to find that a very weak monsoon coincided with the downfall of the dynasties of Tang (618-907), Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368 to 1644).

The study found that China suffered three acute failures of the monsoon, sometime between 860 to 930, 1340 to 1380, and 1580 to 1640. The rainfall shortages caused severe crop shortages and famine. A desperate people revolted as peasant armies that stormed the capital.

The 17th century monsoon failure, circa 1640, finished the Ming dynasty in bloodied tragedy. A peasant rebellion headed by Li Zicheng (1606-1645) raided Beijing. Emperor Chongzhen, the last of the Mings, forced his empress to commit suicide and stabbed his elder daughter. His second daughter, the beautiful Princess Changping (16291646) refused to die, and her enraged father chopped off her left arm [3]. Emperor Chongzhen, murderer of his own family, fled Beijing and hanged himself in a tree in the Meishan Mountain, presently called the Jingshan Mountain.

In India too, the morality of rulers was linked to the rains. During drought and famine, kings did more charitable deeds and pleaded with saints to visit and stay in their kingdom. The monsoon anxiety continues in republic India, with any delay or disruption of monsoon hitting headlines and giving political leaders headaches.

The southwest monsoon this year has given no cause for alarm across India. In Mumbai, the monsoon is the hallmark season, like autumn in New York. In the glory days of monsoons, tourists from Arabian lands of oil and desert sands visited Mumbai to gawk at rain pouring so continuously the sun went unseen for weeks on end.

In those earlier, more intense monsoon years of the 1990s, days and nights were filled with either storms or lingering drizzle. For about three months, the umbrella became essential part of daily life; and paradise was a steaming cup of tea on a Sunday morning, watching the rain spray through green trees. At night, watery roads turned to shimmering gold, reflecting headlamps of cars and the city lights.

But Mumbai monsoons of the 21st century seem infected with the modern disease of decreasing attention spans: dark clouds pour forth the nectar of life for awhile, and then disappear periodically probably to update their Google+ and Facebook pages.

Mumbai receives an average annual rainfall of 223 centimeters, among the highest in the world. Yet the city water resources of three billion liters a day are still so inadequate that millions of Mumbai households get running tap water for barely two hours a day.

The seven islands of Mumbai and its over 13 million population desperately need the rains, but not the attendant flooding of roads, halting of trains, planes and disruption of daily life. It happened last Friday, July 8, when some of the heaviest rains this monsoon hit Mumbai and stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters without transport.

In China, Shanghai receives about 100 centimeters of rainfall annually. While some Mumbai politicians speak of turning Mumbai into Shanghai, Shanghai does not yet turn into Venice on days the monsoon arrives in full array.

But drier days in Shanghai could mean wetter days in Mumbai. Joining Chinese and American research, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in the western Indian city of Pune examined relationship between the break and active phases of the Indian and Chinese monsoon. [4] They found opposite patterns. The active phase of the Indian monsoon corresponded with a break in the Chinese monsoon, and vice versa.

"This study clearly shows that there exists a definite link between break/active phases of the Indian summer monsoon and rainfall over China," say N V Panchawagh and S S Vaidya, the research duo.

Notes
1. Paper titled "Insights from a joint analysis of Indian and Chinese monsoon rainfall data". Co-authors M Zhou, F Tian, H Hu, Department of Hydraulic Engineering, State Key Laboratory of Hydroscience and Engineering, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China and U Lall, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia University MC 4711 New York, NY 10027, USA. Published 31 March 2011 by Copernicus Publications on behalf of the European Geosciences Union.
2. Stalactites are ice formations from the ceiling of the caves. The Enid Blyton formula, mentioned in one of her Famous Five adventures, to remember the difference: stalactites "tightly" cling on to the cave roof in fear of falling down, and stalagmites "might" reach up from the cave floor to the ceiling some day.
3. The surviving Princess Changping, or Zhu Meichuo, expressed her wish to become a nun. But the Shunzi Emperor of Qing Dynasty had her forcibly married to a Zhou Xian. She died a year later in 1645, but lived on for centuries as a popular figure in Chinese folklore.
4. Paper titled "Link between break/active phases of summer monsoon over India and China" co-authored by N V Panchawagh and S S Vaidya, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Dr Homi Bhabha Road, Pune 411 008, India, and published in Current Science, 10 June, 2011.

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