In June 2015, news organizations around the world reported on a deadly heat wave in India that killed more than 2,300 people. Prior to the arrival of the summer monsoon in India, weather conditions had been extremely hot and dry. Such conditions can lead to economic and agricultural disaster, human suffering and loss of life. NASA satellite sensors are allowing scientists to characterize pre-monsoon droughts and heat waves and postulate their scientific cause.
This figure shows the longitude-time variations, averaged between 21 and 22 degrees North, across the middle of the India subcontinent from mid-April to mid-June. Longitude from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal is represented on the horizontal axis; while the vertical axis shows the timeframe. Rainfall is shown on the left, soil moisture is in the center, and surface air temperature is on the right.
For both years (2012 and 2015), the summer monsoon begins in June, with sharp rises in rainfall and soil moisture, and a sharp drop in air temperature. The hottest and driest weeks occurred just before the summer monsoon onsets. Similar dry and hot periods, varying from one to a few weeks, were observed in 2013 and 2014.
Soil moisture as an indication of drought as measured by NASA's Aquarius mission was first available in 2012. Rainfall data are from NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), and surface air temperature is from NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite. The TRMM and Aquarius missions ended in April 2015, before the drought and heat waves. Their data were replaced by those presently available from NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive Mission (SMAP) and Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) to show the drought and heatwave in 2015.
Scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have shown that during the summer monsoon season, moisture is transported into the India Subcontinent from the Arabian Sea and out to the Bay of Bengal. The difference between moisture input from the west and output to the east is deposited as rain over land. The pre-monsoon drought and heat waves coincide with the short period when moisture is advected out to the Bay of Bengal ahead of input from the Arabian Sea. The onset of southwest monsoon winds begins in the Bay of Bengal and sucks moisture out from the subcontinent earlier than the onset in the Arabian Sea.