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Rudi Kiefer: Southern India hammered by summer monsoons off Indian Ocean
Rudi Kiefer
Kerala is the southernmost of the 29 states of India, stretching to just 500 miles north of the equator. Because India has a triangle shape, Kerala State is near both parts of the vast Indian Ocean, similar to Florida. Therefore the area is no stranger to heavy rain.

The India Meteorological Department reports an average of 63 inches rainfall between June 1 and mid-August. That’s more than six times the amount we get in Gainesville during that time period. This year, though, the Indian Express newspaper quoted 2,344 millimeters for the same time span. That’s an astonishing 92 inches.

No hurricane has ever managed to produce this much rain. Only the summer monsoon rains of the Indian Ocean can do that.

Much of Kerala is located on a coastal plain just a few feet above the ocean. The problem was worse in the uplands, which resemble the Georgia Piedmont. Rolling hillsides alternate with rounded domes of granite. The town of Cheruthoni overlooks the Idukki reservoir, whose dam looks similar to the one at Lake Hartwell. Controllers released excess water to avoid a catastrophic breach. Such a break is even more dangerous, because the resulting flash flood would rip entire city blocks apart. The controlled release caused an area flood that inundated communities on the lake. Along Kerala’s large rivers, Chennangur and other cities had entire neighborhoods cut off, with thousands of residents trapped on top of flooded homes.

India’s monsoon is unique because no other place compares to the Tibetan Plateau. It’s the biggest chunk of mountains in the world, located between India and Russia 2,000 miles farther north. Elevations of 15,000 to 28,000 feet make it a giant roadblock to the high-altitude wind flowing from west to east. During winter, the plateau gets very cold. This forces the air to take the southern detour around it.

On maps, the winds are then seen flowing from left to right, blocking the wet stuff coming into India from the east. In the summer, though, the vast plateau becomes a heat source.

Airflow is displaced to the north, closer to Russia. That opens the door for the tropical easterly winds that couldn’t get to India in the winter.

High rainfall totals are common, sometimes 10 inches a day. This month’s flooding in Kerala State, claiming more than 300 lives, was unusually severe.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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