Columbian professor credits Indian writer Amitav Ghosh for planting the idea for his thesis on cyclones

Prof Sobel said that it was in the summer of 2015 that Ghosh wrote an email about possibilities of a cyclone in the indian ocean region, and the possibility of its landfall in the city of Mumbai
Amitav Ghosh (Pic: Express)
Amitav Ghosh (Pic: Express)

For this academician from Columbia University, New York, who has studied the possibility of severe cyclone landfall in Mumbai, inspiration came from none other than Indian writer Amitav Ghosh. Adam H Sobel who is the Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University credited the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh for germinating the idea in his head for his paper on — 'Tropical Cyclone Hazard to Mumbai in the Recent Historical Climate' — whose final version was published in April this year.

It was in the summer of 2015 that Ghosh wrote an email about possibilities of a cyclone in the Indian ocean region, and the possibility of its landfall in the city of Mumbai — Sobel told. This, he said, was following the publication of his book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future, which was based on the disaster that caused large scale devastation in New York City. Sobel was talking on the sidelines of the Jeremy Grantham Lecture at the Divecha Center for Climate Change (DCCC) at IISc, on Tuesday.

He, is of the opinion that both New York City and Mumbai had much in common, and the latter had much to learn from the NYC's experience with Sandy, which was also a completely unpredicted occurrence. "There is a need for an emergency plan for the city although it need not top the list of things to do, but there certainly needs to be a good plan," said Sobel, pointing to the fraction of a percent a year possibility of a landfall of a major cyclone in India's financial capital.

'Encounter with fake news of 1800's'
Going forth from the first communication with Ghosh, Sobel looked through the internet and archives and found that there was an occurrence of a major landfall in the 1800's , only later to find it was fake news even before the pervasion of internet. "The authors first determine, based on a review of primary sources, that the Bombay Cyclone of 1882, documented in a number of print and Internet sources and claimed to have caused 100 000 or more deaths, did not occur," he writes in his research.

Sobel said the "fact" was cited in Wikipedia as well, and referred to in various research books -- however there was no primary source, no description of the massive loss of life in this part of the world and the two did not add up.

"Parthasarthy Mukhyopadhyay who access some archives first confirmed to me it was an internet hoax, and I thought this was well before the internet — in the 1940's. A book even had a paragraph on it. Perhaps its what is called an academic urban myth. Eventually, Wikipedia took it off their site," he sighed.

Sobel got the grant from Columbia University at the institute's global centre in Mumbai and started the work . "references of the work are in Ghosh's 'The Great Derangement'," he said. Ghosh puts an immense amount of time in research before writing his books, he said.

Through the grant from the university, Sobel and team used the model they had developed back in the USA, which checked the probability for rare cyclonic events 'that have never occurred'. This was different from other statistical analysis as it had to forecast an event that virtually did not have a record of an occurrence.

Insurance companies, however, use a simpler version of it, he said, in what they call catastrophe models. "From the findings, one could see that the probability of a major cyclone event is similar to the risk in New York City, and its always good to plan for it. And while the probability is just a fraction of a percentage a year .. which means it would occur once in 200 or even 500 years, the devastation it can cause is massive. With climate change setting in, which was not computed in the model, it is probably worse," he said, as his readings of the findings.

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