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dust storms

What to Do in a Killer Storm—and Why They're Sweeping North India This Year

“In our culture, storms are representative of Yamraj, the god of death.”
People run for cover during a dust storm near India Gate, New Delhi. Image: Amarjeet Singh

As a political storm brewed in Karnataka, north Indians were dealing with literal storms sweeping over their cities—killing at least 100, delaying flights, and closing down schools. As those with uninterrupted internet access marked themselves safe on Facebook, farmers in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere tried to deal with the dire impact on their crops as the wind whipped up to 125 kilometres per hour.


To find out whether this is the beginning of the end of the world, VICE talked to Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, a scientist who studies thunderstorms and is the head of Cyclone Warning Division at the Indian Meteorological Department. Plus, scroll down for tips from the National Disaster Management Authority on how to not die when the next one hits.

VICE: Why do windstorms take place?
Mrutyunjay Mohapatra: Generally, storms occur in India in summer months of May and June, especially May. These storms are following the regular climate pattern in our country. If you look at the spatial distribution of storms in India, maximum of them occur in north-eastern states, followed by eastern India and then in the southern peninsula.

These storms seem more ferocious than in previous years. What the hell is happening?
You will get storm only when there is a trigger in the whole mechanism. Triggers are factors like western disturbances, cyclonic circulation, or a trough line.

"We refer to the month when storms occur as Kaal Baisakhi."

This time the intensity is more in north-west India because of western disturbances. These disturbances are formed due to weather conditions over the Caspian Sea and Mediterranean Sea, and move eastwards. Sometimes they are able to travel as far as India.

Do desi storms have their own personality, different from foreign storms?
Like the basic characteristics of human beings is the same all over the world, the storms are basically same all over the world. Though with change in place, they also get their own local characteristics. Like a storm in Africa will be different from a storm in Europe in some aspects.


What is the significance of storms in our culture and history?
Humans have been affected by storms throughout history. I am from Odisha and have been fond of storms since my childhood. We refer to the month when storms occur in our state as Kaal Baisakhi [the month of death]. Storms are seen as very furious, and an agent of Yamraj, the god of death. People die because of storms there regularly. You have to cope with natural hazards, take your precautions and measures. But you can’t stop them.

Are all storms equal, or are some worse than others?
There are different type of storms, but the most generally occurring are thunderstorms and dust storms. They key difference this time is the moisture. If there is moisture, the resulting storm will be a thunderstorm, otherwise it will just be the dust storm—the kind now lashing the north

Is climate change a factor behind the increase of storms in India?
Climate change is a manifestation of rise in temperature because of human activity. One of the reason of storm is a big temperature difference between the air near us and on heights. This is called instability. Theoretically, the rise in atmospheric temperatures would lead to temperature differences and consequently more storms, though there is not a study on it yet.

Are there any positive effects of such storms?
Every natural phenomenon has its positives. Thunderstorms help in the nitrogen fixation of the soil through lightning. It causes downpour, purifying the air from dust and pollution. It also clears the soil. It helps in sowing before monsoon and in groundwater recharge.


How to Not Die in a Storm

Secure your house and outside objects that could blow away and cause damage. Carry out repairs and don't leave sharp objects loose. Remove rotting trees and broken branches that could fall and cause injury or damage. Designate a safe area in or near your home to shelter pets. Prepare an emergency kit with essential items for safety and survival.

Listen to the radio, watch TV or read newspapers for weather updates and warnings. Keep a watch on local weather updates and warnings.

Stay indoors and off verandas and away from power/telephone line. Unplug all electrical equipment. Don't use corded telephones and metallic objects and avoid touching plumbing and metal pipes. Stay away from structures with tin roofs or metal sheeting. Refrain from taking shelter near or under trees.

Stay put if you are inside a covered vehicle. Get out of the water - pools, lakes, small boats on water bodies and take safe shelter immediately.

Stay away from storm-damaged areas. Stay away from fallen trees or power lines, and report them to nearest district headquarters immediately.

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