Weather systems have a significant impact on agriculture, public health, food and water security, and transportation. This is why government and private weather agencies around the world have large teams of meteorologists working around the clock, trying to improve our understanding of weather conditions and our ability to forecast them. However, like other scientific disciplines, meteorology is a predominantly male profession, especially at higher levels. Women hold only 8% of chief meteorologist positions worldwide.
And that is what makes Dr. Thara Prabhakaran one of the few. Dr. Prabhakaran is currently a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES). An expert in cloud microphysics, Dr. Prabhakaran is currently leading the Cloud-Aerosol Interaction and Precipitation Enhancement Experiment (CAIPEEX), one of the largest scientific experiments in hygroscopic cloud seeding. She is also a member of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Expert Team on Weather Modification. Here’s what she has to say about her journey in pursuit of excellence.
What attracted you to a scientific career?
I was in Pune pursuing my MTech in Atmospheric Physics when I had the chance to intern at Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in 1990. At IMD I was responsible for surface ozone measurements . I had the good fortune to work under Dr. CR Sreedharan, then Deputy Director General of IMD, who led ozone research in India. I also had access to IMD’s ozone instrument configuration and data. I started my scientific career by digitizing and analyzing several years of data.
After my MTech, I was in IIT Delhi for six months. At that time Dr. Sreedharan and Prof. Pisharoty (dubbed the father of remote sensing in India) recommended me for a scholarship in Vienna, Austria through one of India’s leading meteorologists , Dr. Anna Mani. My mentor in Austria, Professor Inge Dirmhirmn and Dr Anna Mani were among the best meteorologists of their time and were also close friends. I am privileged to have known them.
How did Dr Anna Mani inspire you?
Besides all the excellent work she has done in the field of meteorology, Dr. Mani has helped to make us self-sufficient. She built a dedicated workshop at the IMD and inspired us to make our own instruments. She was a genius and her genius stemmed from the avid reading habit she had built throughout her life.
I remember an incident in 1994 where she was really sick and bedridden. I went to Bangalore to meet her and was surprised to see her surrounded by a huge pile of books. She could barely move, but even with her limited movements, she kept reading to update her knowledge. This image of her always stays in my mind and inspires me to push myself in the pursuit of knowledge.
And how did cloud seeding become your priority?
After completing my PhD, I joined the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam as a scientist. I then left India for another 8 years and worked at the University of Georgia, USA. Since December 2008, I have been at IITM and have been involved in the CAIPEEX program, which I have led since 2013. The program has implications for water resources in the country and globally and is one of greatest scientific experiments on hygroscopic cloud seeding. .
What are the objectives of CAIPEEX and why is the program important for India?
At CAIPEEX, we are working on a better understanding of clouds, precipitation, rain enhancement options and their protocols. The microscopic cloud seeding experiments began last year with the aim of writing guidelines for such operations in the future. We fly special planes in the clouds to record information about how raindrops form, how pollution influences rain, what happens to clouds during seeding, whether rain reaches the surface, in what conditions cloud seeding works, etc.
We have made real progress in understanding the ideal conditions for cloud seeding. Our observations are very unique and especially on the Indian region, we have never had such studies before. All our efforts are now directed towards the goal set by the ministry to make protocols for cloud seeding.
Why is weather modification research important in today’s world?
Weather modification has different perspectives: improving rain, dispersing fog/pollution, suppressing hail, etc. Rigorous scientific investigation and evaluation of the suitability of weather modification at any location is required before any attempt is made. Regional-level cloud seeding programs have shown positive results.
Current observational facilities such as dual polarization radar and satellite data together with numerical simulations provide the necessary details on the planning of experiments, documenting the evidence according to WMO recommendations. As part of the OMM-ET, we recently published a peer review report, which gives a raw picture of the state of knowledge on weather modification.
In my opinion, we need to go for a scientifically validated weather modification technique to tackle modern challenges like water scarcity. Science should be our driving force.
In India, do we pay enough attention to meteorological research?
Significant meteorological research efforts are underway in several countries and are mainly related to water scarcity. In India, we are paying greater attention to meteorological research. The MoES has developed a program called Physics and Dynamics of Tropical Clouds to study various aspects of clouds. The IITM has three research radars, which collect cloud and precipitation information in addition to several other state-of-the-art facilities to monitor clouds and rain.
IITM has a cloud physics laboratory at Mahabaleshwar and a ground observing facility at Solapur under CAIPEEX; both record the properties of clouds and aerosol particles. Our observing facilities are comparable to those of other leading nations. We study weather modification, fog, thunderstorms, etc. with detailed observation programs as well as numerical simulations. The need now is to bring more young minds into this field from the college level and raise more awareness about the environment and the impact of pollution on weather and climate.
Why do you think women are underrepresented in meteorology? Is this a challenge for female scientists in your field?
I never felt that I encountered difficulties as a female meteorologist. Gender really doesn’t matter; you just need to clearly define your goals and work towards them. I pursued what I wanted to do with a positive spirit. Having a supportive family also helped.
Today, there are several young women scientists and students of meteorology, and they are doing a great job. There are several scholarships and opportunities today that did not exist before, encouraging more women to enter this field.
India is facing massive water scarcity problems. How should we deal with this problem?
There are several issues related to the environment, air pollution, weather and climate impact that we need to work on. We still need to better understand clouds and their environment, to make better weather forecasts. We also need observing systems that could be developed locally for meteorological applications, as Professor Anna Mani has done, to make lasting progress. In my opinion, the approach can be summed up in the words of Mahatma Gandhi ji: “find the goal, and the means will follow”.
This article is part of The Weather Channel India’s week-long interview series marking the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.