Sky’s the limit: Could Skymet soon become India’s go-to monsoon forecaster?

Skymet uses a combination of three things to get its weather forecasting down to the nail.


India is a hotbed for startups.

From food delivery to cashless payments to booking a massage at home, there’s a startup solve for every other service imaginable.

A popular philosophy from the growing world of startup entrepreneurs is ‘blue-sky thinking’ —  letting thoughts flow creatively, free from thoughts about present realities.

There’s now startups in India that are quite literally looking at the big blue sky for inspiration.

Skymet Weather, the 14-year old weather monitoring organisation, for one is taking on our country’s big daddy of climate prediction, the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

Skymet claims to be India's largest weather monitoring and agri-risk solutions company. Founded in 2003, it specialises in “measuring, predicting and limiting climate risk to agriculture.”

Not only have they made a successful business of it, but Skymet is also considered today as one of the most reliable sources of weather forecasts.

Their clients are from a diverse range of industries — ABP (Media), Cairn (Energy), and ICICI (Finance) among dozens of others, each of which relies on accurate forecasts for their operations.

India’s Met Department

India Meteorological Department (or simply the Met Department) is a branch of the Indian government tasked with weather and climate predictions, forecasting and seismology.

Founded in 1875, the IMD was India’s answer to unpredictable cyclones, famines and rainfall patterns in the country at the time.

One of the first few electronic computers introduced in the country was provided to IMD for scientific applications in meteorology.

India was also the first developing country in the world to have its own geostationary satellite, INSAT for continuous weather monitoring of this part of the globe and particularly for cyclone warning. It was important, prominent and unrivalled for nearly a century and a half.

It continues to be for millions, with the annual monsoon forecast playing a vital role to a considerable proportion of our countrymen.

For the longest time, IMD has enjoyed a monopoly in Indian meteorology.

Everybody – from fishermen, farmers and insurance companies to people simply wanting to know if they ought to carry an umbrella to work tomorrow – were clued into what they could expect from the weather through the day, week or year ahead.

Rivals worth their satellites?

With the arrival of private weather enterprises like Skymet and IBM Weather, weather is no longer IMD's monopoly.

In fact, with the IMD frequently changing its prediction on monsoon's arrival, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in Mumbai has decided not to rely on the IMD for predictions, and subscribe to Accuweather.com and Weather.com for updates, according to a Hindustan Times report.

Private industry players like Skymet now provide weather forecasts at the level of villages to forecast a range of things — rainfall patterns to yields of any crop — with a high level of accuracy.

Skymet is currently forecasting for every tehsil in India, according to its website.

However, the IMD is far from obsolete, according to an expert from a leading agriculture-risk research firm in Mumbai.

"The IMD has moved towards non-traditional ways of collecting data in the past few years. IMD has been improving phenomenally over the past five to six years, they've improved phenomenally. There's no comparison to that (expansion)," said the expert who did not wish to be named.

Skymet’s secret sauce

Private weather monitoring companies, taking the example of Skymet, use a combination of approaches to get their weather forecasting down to the nail:

  • Synoptic and Climatological data: Looking at past weather/climate situations to assess the frequencies of different conditions in the present.
  • Weather Satellites: The ones that can study a lot more than clouds – lumens from city lights, pollution levels, looming sand and dust storms, and mapping land and sea ice. Skymet uses the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) – a series of satellites launched by ISRO since the 1980s – to detect and record weather information.
  • Numerical Weather Predictions: This involves picking up on day-to-day weather information and running them on supercomputers to produce forecasts. It is the only private organisation in India to run a numerical prediction model for its predictions, according to the Skymet website.

Skymet's popular 7-day forecast for Asia is a result of a collaboration with the National Center for Environmental Prediction, USA.

“We have also adapted the model to Indian conditions; we have statistically tweaked to the peculiarities of the subcontinent,” the website reads.

This formula of monitoring and processing is the secret sauce Skymet and a lot of other private players in the business of weather are using to get “accuracy levels of approximate 90 to 95 percent for short duration forecasts.”

Could Skymet soon become India’s go-to monsoon forecaster?

Perhaps.

However, according to the expert we spoke to, the question is an unfair one.

There are many players like Skymet, IBM Weather, NCMSL that are coming out with data and it's important to have as many data points as available apart from the government of India's, he says.

"This healthy competition is helping bring in more accuracy, more responsibility, ownership and accountability, which is a relatively new development."

The competition may be heating up in the space of weather prediction by the year, and weather technology will evolve rapidly with the needs and times.

How will IMD respond to this challenge from the private sector?

Is climate forecasting soon becoming the next hot sector for venture capital funding?

Will Skymet do a Skynet on us and take over its satellites, possibly the world’s weather?

As the saying goes, the sky's the limit.

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