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Engineering, Environment

Climate & Environmental Professional Interview

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Please tell us about yourself. 

It is not very often that a BTech graduate of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences chooses to pursue an MA degree in Climate and Society(link is external).
But then Mukund Palat Rao, who just graduated from the Amrita School of Engineering at Coimbatore and has enrolled in Columbia University in New York, is no ordinary student. Combining a love for nature with a keen understanding of the inter-disciplinary approach that is needed to solve humanity’s problems today, he sought admission into the highly competitive masters program and obtained it.

His class-mates in New York will include students from backgrounds as varied as finance, communications, earth sciences, geography, biology, anthropology and ecology, in addition to engineering.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

After graduating from Amrita this past summer, Mukund had the opportunity to undergo a month-long certificate course on environmental and developmental issues, offered by the Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

The course included a week-long field trip to rural India. The field trip was supplemented with discussions with environmentalists, academicians and grassroots activists.

“India is a very vast country, and often there is a lack of information about what is happening in its remote areas,” Mukund shared.

Mukund, together with other course participants, traveled to the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, to explore eco-restoration efforts that communities there had undertaken.

In the process, he came face-to-face with the modern idea of development, and how this impacted the management of the natural resource base, people’s livelihoods and the environment.

“With numerous hydro-electric projects coming up on the Sutlej and its tributaries in the district we visited, we saw first-hand the catastrophic destruction of the environment everywhere. Blasting at the dam sites was causing major landslides in the area. The Chilgoza pine nut trees were being ruthlessly cut down, and the suspended particulate matter in the air was affecting apple production also,” he ruefully pointed out.

How will this degree benefit the community?

“Economic growth needs to be balanced with a concern for ecology and the environment. Now I question the value of focusing on GDP growth alone. Can development really be just defined by a simple metric or should there be more things factored in, such as how people’s lives are changing for the better or the worse?” he asked.

It may have been the month-long course that gave Mukund some of these sharp insights, nevertheless it was his four-year tenure at Amrita that first helped awaken a deep love for Mother Nature.

In accordance with the mandate of the Supreme Court of India, every college student in Amrita undergoes a course on the environment. The course is supplemented with many out-of-classroom activities where students experience first-hand the benefits of organic gardening, water conservation and proper waste management.

“The blend of the above helped us learn about environmental issues both from a scientific as well as a social sciences approach. I realized that the environment is not something that is limited to fancy protocols and conventions in Cancun and Copenhagen alone; rather it is a part of our daily lived experiences. I understood that there is a little bit of the environment in everything we see, hear and do.”

Tell us about your work at Columbia University?

In Mongolia, pastoral nomadic herding is still a cornerstone of the culture. But it is a tough life and in recent years herders have been hit with more “dzud” – disastrous years where huge numbers of livestock die. In some cases, herders have been left without a single animal, forcing them to migrate to urban areas. Many of the dzud events are thought to be linked to climate, but until now the details of this connection were not clear. A new study has revealed that exceptionally cold winters and dry summers are key causes of dzud years.

Mukund and his colleagues studied mortality data from 21 Mongolian provinces, known as “aimags”, between 1955 and 2013. They compared this information to climate data gathered over the same period. Livestock mortality was most strongly linked to exceptionally cold winters (November to February), the team found. But winter was not the only factor. The researchers also found that a dry summer (July to September) prior to a cold winter further increased the chances of a dzud. Such climate effects could explain nearly half of the livestock deaths.

“The exact mechanism for how climate causes mortality is complicated, but can include things like a lack of access to forage because of snow, or a weakened immune system after a summer drought,” said Palat Rao.

Worse still, it appears that these harsh climate events often occur several years running. “Looking at the mortality time series more closely, we see that high mortality years often cluster together, for example 1966, 1967, 1968, [and] 2000, 2001, 2002, and there could be long stretches of time where there is very low mortality, [e.g.] 1984–1999,” said Palat Rao.

But for now life rolls on. And with a greater understanding of the link between climate and dzud events, herders may be able to take some positive action. Meanwhile, insurance companies will be able to anticipate high mortality years based on climate alone, potentially speeding up the insurance payout process.



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