Life-giving or Death-dealing Winds

June 21, 1995

So you think it's getting beastly hot in Baltimore for this time of year? Perhaps some perspective is needed. The temperature in New Delhi hit 102 degrees on Monday.

India is truly a land of extremes. No one says, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute," as they do in New England. If it's April or May in the north, you can depend on hot, dry weather with cloudless skies. If it's July or August, you can bank on lower temperatures, high humidity and rain.

The problem is, you can't count on the amount of rain or when it will begin. In bad years the summer rains can cause floods that kill hundreds and leave tens of thousands homeless. Or, as this year, they can come weeks late. The northern plains bake under temperatures over 110 degrees, occasionally over 120 degrees. This year nearly 600 people have died of heat-related causes. Despite a brief respite from showers, the end of the heat wave may be weeks away.

The cause of all this is a phenomenon known as the monsoon, wind patterns found in several parts of the world but nowhere as strong, or as vital, as they are on the Indian subcontinent. The winds are caused by the heating of the land mass during the March-May dry season as the sun moves north (or the earth tilts at a different angle toward it). The heated air above the plains draws the winds from the cooler air mass above the Indian Ocean.

By the beginning of June, the monsoon rains slowly make their way from the western shores to the parched plains of northern and central India. Their progress is marked daily in the newspapers. No one quite understands why the monsoon brings deluges one year and only sprinkles another, or why it can be weeks behind schedule as it is this year. It's more than a matter of comfort. Rivers and wells can run dry. The planting of the summer crops of grains, the mainstay of the Indian diet, can be delayed or destroyed by drought. Even with its great advances in agriculture in the past three decades, India is still vulnerable to a weak monsoon, which comes along every three or four years.

Nor can scientists figure out why the westerly monsoon that covers most of the country at this time of year can be so weak while counterpart winds from the Bay of Bengal can unload hundreds of inches of rain on the northeast. While the Jamuna River has insufficient flow for New Delhi's water supply, millions are marooned by floods in Bangladesh, 800 miles to the east. Even in a huge land mass, people still live or die by the supply of water.

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