Long before the India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced that Cyclone Fani would rip through the country’s eastern coast, Ambarish Nag Biswas, a radio technician based in the Kolkata suburb of Sodepur, spotted the system forming in the Bay of Bengal.
“It was the last week of April, and I was doing a routine check of the weather on my workstation at home,” says Biswas, who is a licensed amateur or “ham” radio operator and the secretary of the West Bengal Ham Radio Club. Though their activities—which entail intercepting, decoding and transmitting radio signals in the environment—are classified as ‘hobbies’, Biswas says ham radio experts are regularly called in by central and state government agencies for a host of reasons, including for scanning radio waves for anti-terror purposes.
Monitoring climatic conditions goes hand-in-hand with reading radio signals, he explains: “Since the clarity of radio waves is dependent on the weather, our work mandates its monitoring.”
But 49-year old Biswas, who has been a ham radio operator for over twenty-six years, could not have imagined that this practice would eventually produce dozens of local amateur meteorologists. “Now, Kolkata and the surrounding areas can boast of a sizeable group of weathermen who, without being officially connected to the IMD, can forecast cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons and really every other kind of storms around the globe,” he says.
Biswas and other amateur meteorologists in the vicinity had identified cyclones such as Phailin (2013) and Hudhud (2014).
“We usually work behind the scenes,” says Abharjit Das, Biswas’ colleague and another Kolkata amateur meteorologist, who had not only predicted Fani but was part of a team of rescue workers created by the Ham Radio Club which rushed to Puri, where the cyclone made the landfall. “As amateur meteorologists, we are not just content to predict cyclones; we try to make our work useful by going to the next level and conducting rescue and relief work or assisting government and non-government agencies,” Das adds.
Indeed, the striking of Fani (the name, which was given by Bangladesh, as per the international rotational system of nomenclature, means “a snake’s hood” in Bengali) late last week has brought these amateur meteorologists out of woodwork and in the foreground.
Das, along with his colleagues Arunava Dey and Gobindo Gharami, was on his way to Puri, when Fani, which had already made landfall at dawn, was moving up the path. “Our departure for Odisha from West Bengal was delayed because we thought the cyclone would land later but we caught a glimpse when we crossed it.” Claiming that it was the “most fearful thing” he had ever witnessed as an amateur meteorologist, Das described Fani as “a twirling black and grey giant, conical in shape, with a narrow bottom and increasingly wider top, heavy with torrential rain, which it was spewing all around it, and thick, grey clouds around it.”
His biggest regret is that it was so dark that he could not take a photograph or video of it. “Our vehicle was shaking violently in the wind, and we did not know if the tornado would hit us or pass us by. At that point we were so awe-struck we were not even thinking of our safety or even whether we would survive.”
Biswas, Das and his team including amateur meteorologists Ramesh, Suresh and Ravi say
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