A thin blanket of frost covering vast swathes of tea plantations and flower beds — it is a sight to behold every first week of January in the hill ranges of Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district. Sub-zero temperature and the occasional light snowfall are the characteristics of the winter season in Munnar. It attracts tourists from all corners of the country, who enjoy the chilly weather that accompanies the winter in January. However, something is amiss this year — the January winter never arrived in Munnar. Climate experts estimate slim chances of frost or chilly weather arriving next month, too. Is there a change in the pattern of winter, which has been worryingly evident for the past four years?
The winter season normally starts in November in Idukki. It then graduates to extreme cold in the first week of January when the valleys and hills are swathed in frost. However, for the past four years, there has been a noticeable change in the winter pattern in the hill station. In 2019, Munnar experienced a long winter with the mercury dipping sub-zero only in February, and experts attribute this to many reasons, including heavy rainfall. “In 2020, the hill station witnessed minus temperature in the second week of January. In 2021, Munnar missed the winter in the first week of January due to unexpected heavy rains. But after a week, the winter was back and the temperature dropped sub-zero," climatologist Gopakumar Cholayil tells TNM.
It’s January 28, 2022, and the hill station has not recorded snowfall or sub-zero temperature, according to a source from the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) Tea Research Foundation in Munnar, which carries out scientific research on the cultivation, production and processing of tea. With 1 degree Celsius in Munnar’s Chenduvarai, Munnar witnessed the lowest temperature of the winter season on December 28, 2021. However, the temperature only increased after that.
The temperature at Letchmi and Munnar UPASI was 2 degrees Celsius, and three degrees at Sevenmalai and Silent Valley on December 28. “Normally after the temperature falls, it drops to minus. But after December 28, the temperature increased. Now, the average temperature in Munnar is 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. Munnar has recorded a sub-zero temperature so far this year, the source from the foundation says.
Photo caption: Munnar in January 2021
“The unexpected heavy rainfall last year, the change or missing winter season in Munnar are an indication of the change of climate calendar,” climatologist Gopakumar says.
Even a mild change in the climate pattern can be first visible in the hill stations, he points out. “At present, there is a chance of mild winter in February or no chilly season this year. A clear sky and moisture conditions are required for chilly weather and snowfall. But the present climate situation indicates cloudy skies in the hill station for the last several days, and that will affect the arrival of sub-zero temperature," Gopakumar adds.
Experts also point to the impact the change in climate pattern will have on Munnar’s tourism prospects.
Environmentalist MN Jayachandran imputes the changing climate conditions to the vague land use policy and illegal constructions in Munnar. “The hilly district of Idukki celebrated its 50 years of formation on Wednesday (January 26). Over the years, the developmental concept was based only on construction, and it mainly impacted Munnar,” he alleges.
“Resorts and homestays in Munnar sell chilly weather and snowfall of the hill station to earn crores of income. If there is no chilly weather, tourists will not arrive at the hill station. The state and local governments should have stricter land-use policies or developmental criteria to keep a check on the discrimination and illegal use of lands in Munnar and other parts of Idukki,” environmentalist Jayachandran adds.