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Sea Changed; Therefore Climate Change

Sea Changed; Therefore Climate Change

Monday, January 30, 2023

“Look at that wave, Anna,” Palayam greeted me excitedly. It was 5:45 am. The sun was bleeding through the clouds in the eastern horizon, and day was just dawning as I made my way towards his roost on the beach near the Adyar river-mouth. “Its face has changed overnight. It’s rolling in from the north.” I threw a piece of driftwood into the sea and watched it wash up and down all the time gently drifting south with the Vanni current flowing in slowly and surely from the north. Until yesterday, the shore current was a pronounced “Thendi” flowing from the south, signalling that the Kachan season hadn’t yet yielded to the season influenced by the northeast monsoon. The current had switched overnight; after 219 days of the Kachan season, Palayam marked October 20, 2022 – the third day of the Tamil month of Aippasi – as the first day of the Vaadai season.

I squatted on the sand next to him. It was wet with last night’s rain – an intense spell that only lasted 30 minutes but had left tell-tale puddles in the potholes that dotted the seaside mud road fringing the village. “It never used to be like this in my father’s days,” Palayam complained. “Seasons arrived as they ought to…” he trails off. The northeast monsoon season had set in nearly a month late this year.

Fishers track seasons differently than the Indian met department. The year is divided broadly into “Kachan naal” and “Vaadai naal” – corresponding to the times of the year when prevailing wind and currents are from the south (Kachan) and north (Vaadai) respectively. The summer days, including the Kodai (summer) sub-season and the period of southwest monsoon rains, are part of the Kachan season. The Vaadai days, in turn, enclose the stormy Northeast season between two periods of calm – or at least, they used to. The change of seasons is marked by a month – Purattasi before the Vaadai naal and Margazhi before the Kachan naal – when the currents and winds slow down and the seas are calm and clear.

According to Palayam, the global discourse on climate change is late in coming. “I would say the climate changed a long time ago. It is not something that is in the future. The seas have changed and I don’t know if there is anything we can do to reverse that. We have been saying this all along and more emphatically since the tsunami,” he says. “And if the seas have changed, how can the seasons not?”

What Palayam says has been the lament of fishers across Tamil Nadu’s coast. Fishers refer to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a time marker rather than a causal agent. The sea exerts a powerful influence on local weather and global climate. 

Purattasi troubles

Palayam still reads tell-tale signs that allow for some predictability regarding the onset of seasons but not for the erraticism of weather on specific days. One August evening as the setting sun threw long shadows, we were sitting on the beach just past the village. Palayam was telling me about the seasons before the seas changed. The gist of our conversation is tabulated below. But that evening, Palayam remarked that the Vaadai season will be delayed well into late Purattasi (mid-October).

The tell-tale signs were many. During that evening’s conversation, Palayam revealed his line of reasoning: First, early this year (2022), the Vaadai season influenced by the northeast monsoon persisted nearly two months beyond schedule.

Since August 2019, as part of our Science of The Seas project, Palayam and I have been maintaining a daily record of wind, nearshore and mid-sea currents and qualitative notes about weather and ocean conditions based on his observations from the beach. Our attempt to generate nuanced data to back fishers’ general observations about changing seas is perhaps the first one to use a human meteorological observatory – Palayam – to record hyper-local data capable of yielding hyper-local findings.

Vaadai Naal faded on March 15, 2022 and the Kachan season, which brackets the southwest monsoon, began on March 16 according to our records. The observations for the two days are as follows:

Vaikaasi (mid-May to mid-June) too was not as it ought to have been. That month is known for the strong southerly Kachan breeze; referred to as the Vaikaasi Vangal, the breeze is strong enough to pound up a surf where the waves break. “But this Vaikaasi, we did not have a strong kachan.” Not only that, the Kachan season that ought to have witnessed steady southerly currents was interrupted by several days when the current flowed in from the north. “Going by this, I suspect that not only will the kachan season prolong and eat into the Vaadai season, but also that we may witness Thendi currents, instead of the Vanni northerlies, in Purattasi. If that happens, the sea is likely to be rough when it ought to be calm, and turbid when the waters ought to be clear,” Palayam had told me in August. The northeast season that ought to set in by early October will be pushed into Aippasi (mid-October to mid-November).

Palayam’s diary records October 20, 2022 – the third day of Aippasi – as the first day of the Vaadai season signalling the imminent onset of the Northeast monsoon. And, as feared, between October 20 and January 18, 2023, our records indicate 16 days of Thendi currents and 15 days when the nearshore waters were still – with neither a pronounced Thendi nor a Vanni.

Seas not rains

Across India, the seasons containing the monsoons are evaluated based solely on the quantum and intensity of rainfall, and its impact on agriculture. Fishers have different metrics. The behaviour of the pre-monsoon months of Chithirai and Vaikasi (Southwest monsoon) and Purattasi (Northeast) are critical to Chennai’s fishers. The Kodai Puyals (summer storms) during the influence of the southwest monsoon signal a break in a long spell of uneventful fishing.

Summer storms are vicious and dangerous. They build up and die out in a matter of hours and cannot be picked up by meteorological stations in time for meaningful alerts to be put out. Experienced fishers, though, look out for and know to tell the onset of such storms. Kodai Puyals occur at night during Chithirai (April-May), and during the day in the month of Vaikasi (mid-May to mid-June). Fisher elders warn against night fishing during Chithirai, venturing too far out into the sea at any time and advise their kin to be on the lookout for tell-tale signs if out fishing during the day in Vaikasi. Read our piece titled “Storm Widows” that is part of the mythology of Palayam’s village and talks about a day storm that emptied an entire village of its young men.

As dangerous as they are, fishers long for these storms that roil up the oceans, turn it turbid and inviting for the prized fish to emerge from their hideouts and into their hungry nets. It has been a long time since the last Kodai Puyal, and this year too, the storms gave our coast a total miss. Two more months of good earnings lost.

Why this Change

The more the seasons get delayed, the less favourable the conditions are for fishers to earn a living. The seasonal rains that ought to have come did not come. Summer storms are getting delayed. One cyclone that approached Chennai veered off suddenly and made landfall in a different state. “Nature has changed,” Palayam muttered.

He gets doleful when I ask him about the reasons for the change. “Why this change? It is all to do with nature. Only nature knows. We can only ask nature why things have changed like this. We cannot question nature. We can bow to it. We can pray to it and plead “Mother, please tell us why we have no earnings.” If you ask why the nets are empty, it is because the natural conditions conducive for fishing that should have developed during this season have failed to materialise. In artisanal fisheries, we are repeatedly taught by our elders to control our greed. Just because you have the ability to take much, you should not. It is dangerous; it is immoral. Perhaps the state of our seas has to do with the replacement of these morals by a culture that does not know the meaning of the word “enough.”

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