Clouds are omnipresent yet many experts agree the understanding of clouds is still in a very nascent stage. What are the distinguishing features of monsoon clouds, how do the clouds form and how does the climate change affect the clouds? There are many questions that add to the enigma of the clouds.
In probably the country's only lab dedicated to the study of tropical clouds, one can literally kiss the clouds that pass over the Rs 50 crore laboratory day in and day out as scientists try to understand them better.
Dr G Pandithurai, Scientist, High Altitude Cloud Physics Laboratory, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Mahabaleshwar, says, "We study the processes related to clouds and precipitation in this lab. Here the advantage is that we get clouds close to the surface so we can monitor them and their physical properties and how the cloud activation process happens."
Do the scientists here claim an expertise in monsoon clouds too? Mr Pandithurai says, "We still do not understand the monsoon cloud very well, especially in the Western Ghats, the orographic clouds. That is the objective of this observatory."
Monsoon clouds are much lower in altitude, much warmer than the clouds in the temperate regions and usually "not very deep", says Dr Ravi Nanjundiah, Director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.
"Clouds still befuddle scientists and hence India is putting a very strong emphasis on understanding the behaviour of clouds," he says.
Located in the forests of the Western Ghats at an altitude of 1400 meters, the lab boasts of sophisticated instruments. Every year, the slopes receive 6 metre rain due to the bearing clouds from the Arabian Sea, which is decreasing by 8 mm annually.
So what are the scientists studying amid these clouds? What are the nuclei on which rain drops condense? How is air pollution affecting cloud behaviour? The link between climate change and clouds is still a mystery. The chaos and turbulence in the tropics makes it even more challenging to predict the Indian weather.
Scientists hope that improved understanding of clouds will help in better prediction of monsoons. And in the long run, these studies can also suggest ways to modify incoming heavy clouds so as to avoid extreme flooding, for instance in Mumbai and Chennai. Whether we like it or not, the scientific understanding of clouds remains hazy and Indian scientists are working hard to lift the veil.