Niranjan K, the driver for an IT executive in Bengaluru, always keeps an extra jacket in the car. At 2 am on January 4, that came in handy while he was waiting to pick up his employer at the airport parking lot. He was forced to wear the jacket over his sweater as the temperature dipped to levels not seen in recent years in the region. Dozens of flights were delayed or cancelled, especially early in the morning, due to fog.

That day, the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre recorded 5.8°C in Bengaluru Rural. The city also saw its third coldest winter day. “We are not used to this cold. It is very difficult to work,” says Niranjan.

Though the country’s tech capital is known for its bracing weather in December and January, this winter has been exceptionally frigid. The mercury’s dip was unusual in other places in south India, too.

Pavithra Chandrasekaran, vice-president with mental wellness venture Ask Krishna, had to dig up extra woollens to keep her family warm at her home in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul, about 370 km south of Bengaluru. “This is among the coldest winters I have experienced,” she says. “It feels like this year, winter is three or degrees colder and more uncomfortable.” Several of her friends in other towns of Tamil Nadu, including Valparai, Ooty and Coonoor (where temperatures dipped to almost zero), were also caught unawares this winter.

While the weather in North India forces people to go under layers of woollen clothes every winter, the South experiences relatively milder climate. But this season, the mercury dropped to unusual levels in the peninsula.

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Cold Wave: Some of the coldest places in south India this winter

4.4°C Adilabad Dec 28
5.5°C Medak Dec 31
8.6°C Ramagundam Jan 2
10.5°C Arogyavaram Jan 3
11.5°C Bengaluru Jan 3
11.6°C Mandya Jan 4
4.4°C Ooty Jan 3
4.4°C Kodaikanal Jan 3
3.5°C Valparai Jan 5
–4°C Chenduvara (near Munnar) Jan 7 (Source: Skymet Weather Services)

The hill station of Munnar, which usually sees a low of 3 to 4°C, recorded -4°C this year. The mercury went unusually low in Coonoor, Ooty, several places in Telangana and north interior Karnataka, too. Chennai, often called a city where the “weather is hot, hotter or hottest”, also saw its lowest temperature of the season,at 19°C, on January 6. The city usually sees a low of around 23 or 24°C in December-January.

The unusually cold weather in south India was catalysed by a large gap between two westerly disturbances, says Mahesh Palwat, vice president-meteorology and climate change, Skymet Weather Services. This allowed cold winds from the North to blow across the southern peninsula, causing excessively low temperatures. He, however, says it would be difficult to call it among the coldest winters in all of south India. While the temperatures dropped on January 10 and 11 due to these reasons, it is eventually expected to rise by 3 or 4°C from mid-January. “The commencement of winter was late this year, but the southern peninsula had a sharper, shorter cold season this time,” he adds.

The cold snap has cheered some. Hotel owners in Munnar and Ooty have seen a rise in bookings as people rushed in to catch a glimpse of the frosted fields. But the weather has given agriculturists the shivers. In the interiors of north Karnataka, for instance, low temperatures arrived at a bad time for grape, orange and sugarcane growers, says HS Shivaramu, professor and head agro-meteorology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru. “The ideal weather and temperature for sugar accumulation (which impacts the taste and sweetness) is around 13°C at night and 25°C in the day,” he explains, “Colder temperatures have meant that a lot of this produce isn’t even going to be good enough for manufacturing of resin.” The lowest quality of sugarcane is used to make resin and such products. One tonne of sugarcane yields 100-120 kg of sugar. But the cold spell and uneven rainfall could make the yield fall to 85-90 kg.

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The biting cold has caused problems for south India’s tea gardens also. Planters and industry groups expect overall production this year to be around 11 million tonnes, lower than the previous year’s 13 million tonnes. Experts say tea gardens will take weeks, if not months, to recover from the prolonged aftereffects of this cold spell.”It is going to be a difficult start to the year for the industry. Recovery is also expected to be slow,” says a senior official of The United Planters Association of Southern India.

Kanan Devan, one of the largest tea makers in the region, has lost crops worth Rs 5 crore across 869.91 hectares, says Managing Director Mathew Abraham. “This was one of the coldest winters and comparable to 2008 when we lost crops on 1,147.57 hectares due to frost.” While the ideal temperature for tea production is 20-30°C, near-zero to sub-zero temperatures have caused widespread damage. Company officials say frost has crippled production and is threatening the livelihood of thousands of estate workers. For a region that usually waits for searing summer to end, the south of India for once can’t wait for the end of cold winds.



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