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Scarlets Of Fire

With scientists unable to crack the mystery surrounding the red rain and a series of other strange natural phenomena in Kerala, the possibility of a big disaster like an earthquake is looming large on the people's minds. A report by INDIA TODAY's Special Correspondent M.G. Radhakrishnan.

Dug wells disappearing, undug wells appearing—on their own—sheets of red rain lashing and groves of trees rumbling as their monsoon green turns into charred grey. Something has gone terribly wrong. Could it be a signal of something worse to come? An earthquake perhaps? Or is it just a colour coincidence, as one Lok Sabha MP chose to see it? Red rain, he had said tongue-in-cheek, after the Reds' recent humiliating electoral defeat. In God's Own Country, someone else said, anything is possible.
After centuries of advance, even the scientific community appears to be agreed on that. Anything is possible. As theory after elusive theory comes forth to account for the strange phenomena—the disappearing and the appearing wells, the red rain, the burnt leaves—that parts of Kerala have witnessed in the past two months, there's been little consensus on what's been happening. And little comfort for those like retired school master K. Gopinathan Pillai, who actually saw the dusty red raindrops as he sipped his morning coffee in the verandah of his Bharanikkavu home in Kollam district.

The red rain was first reported at Changanasserry in Kottayam district on July 25. According to the locals, a loud sound like a thunderclap was heard at around 5.30 a.m. accompanying which was a flash of light. What followed was a three-hour spell of heavy rain, 15 minutes of which, they claim, was a scarlet sheet. Following the rain, large tracts of trees shed burnt leaves.
The Centre for Earth Sciences Studies (CESS) of Thiruvananthapuram, which took samples of the rain for a probe, following a directive by the state Government, first said it was meteoric dust. It claimed that a meteor travelled from the west to the east and exploded towards the east of Madhumala junction in Changanasserry. The burning meteor threw around 1,000 kg of fine dust which came down as red rain. A week later, CESS changed its stand after making a chemical and biological analysis of the water samples. It said the red coloured cell structure was biological in nature and has been tentatively identified as spores of some species of fungus. The spores are being cultured to determine the exact species by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI). The chemical analysis showed the presence of various elements like carbon, silicon, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, iron, sodium, potassium besides traces of phosphorous, titanium, chromium, manganese, copper and nickel.

Yet to arrive at a conclusion, the CESS candidly admits that several questions remain unanswered. What, for instance, had produced the huge quantity of spores? Was the source local or alien? If alien, how was the mass transported without getting disbursed over a larger area? And how were the spores injected into the clouds? "While the cause of the colour in the rainfall has been identified, finding the answers to these questions is what is posing a challenge," says Dr M. Baba, director, CESS.

Meanwhile, meteorologists at the Centre of Monsoon Studies have put forward a radically different hypothesis for the coloured showers. According to them, the fine dust blown into the Arabian sea from the deserts of West Asian countries are colouring the Kerala rain. In a reported statement, Dr P.V. Joseph, a former director with the Indian Meteorology Department (IMD), said the dust-laden air from the Arabian dust-bowl moves southwards and turns east over central Arabian Sea towards the Kerala coast. This, he says, "got mixed with the monsoon rains".

Significantly, no red rains have been reported anywhere in the country so far. At the same time, however, the phenomenon is not unprecedented the world over. A website called records three instances of red rain in Europe, all in the 19th century. The information has been collected from The American Journal of Science and Arts of 1819 and two books of the same period, The Romance of Natural History (James Nisbet and Co) and Strange Phenomena; A sourcebook of Unusual Natural Phenomena (William A. Corliss). According to this data, red rains occurred in Naples, Italy in 1818. And on analysis the water was found to have been composed of silex, alimina, chrome, carbonmic acid and a cumbustible substance of a carbonaceous nature. It was thought to be of "volcanic origin and that the presence of chrome assimilates it with meteoric stones". Against this background and the claim made by the locals that they saw a flash and heard a strange sound are what appear to have prompted CESS scientists to initially ascribe the cause to a meteoric explosion.

The red rain apart, another point of debate has been the disappearance and appearance of wells. In the past couple of months, nearly 200 wells have reportedly been covered up while several news ones have been formed with the earth caving in in parts of Kerala. While none of these events has caused any damage or injury, many fear that these, especially the well collapse, are precursors to some natural disaster. Particularly so since Kerala experienced an earthquake in December last year which was of the highest intensity (5 on Richter scale) recorded in the state. The quake was followed by more than 50 minor after shocks in almost all parts of the state for the next two months.
Although the earthquake or the subsequent microsiesmic activity did not result in any deaths, thousands of buildings suffered cracks of various magnitudes. With the state falling under seismic zone. 3, scientists do not rule out the possibility of more earthquakes in the future. According to seismologists, many pre-existing geological faults in the area have been reactivated.
CESS, which led the investigation into the wall-collapse as well, has ruled out any reason for panic but it has been cautious in its remarks. "In the absence of ground vibrations or other perceptible sounds felt in the region during the period of well collapse incidents, it is difficult to relate them immediately to earthquake phenomenon," a report submitted to the Government said. The report, prepared by CESS, the Geological Survey of India (GSI), the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and state departments, has ascribed the well collapse to the type of well lining, lithological conditions, rainfall intensity and ground water recharge.

Baba argues that there are more than 50 lakh wells in the state, many of which routinely cave in during monsoons. "Now every incident gets reported. That is all," he says. According to him Kerala had heavier rains during this monsoon than last year. As per the report, the state received about 2000 mm more rainfall this year than the previous year. Increased ground water recharge during the rains which builds up differential water pressure and pore pressure at the bottom result in collapse of wells, elaborates the report. Moreover, the affected wells were mainly located in coastal, sandy, alluvial tracts which were less cohesive. As for the threat of earthquakes, Baba says Kerala can have only minor ones, which at worst can cause minor cracks in buildings. "With the construction pattern Kerala has, no quake is likely to cause a heavy toll," he explains. "Remember it is not the quake but the buildings which kill people."

However, not all scientists are willing to dismiss the phenomena as ordinary. "Serious tectonic activities are going on in this region and the incidents are their manifestations. Whether it would lead to a major earthquake is not sure," says John Mathai, a seismologist with CESS who did a detailed study of the well collapse. According to him, more than the rains it is the stress built up by increased tectonic activity which led to the caving in of the wells. Differences in water table was one important precursor to the 1975 quake in China's Yanshan belt which killed 6.5 lakh people, he adds.

Dr P.K. Thampy, former director of CESS and geologist, prefers to play it safe. "Available scientific knowledge cannot say if these phenomena are going to cause any quake. Neither can we say that they will not cause them." With the prediction of earthquakes still largely impossible, he feels even constant monitoring may not fully help in averting such a disaster. "All we can do is to evolve ways to mitigate the damage and manage the disaster," he says. Under the circumstances, he couldn't be more right.



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