The New Year brought chilling temperatures to India that have not eased in 10 days, causing damage to tea gardens, killing more than 100 people, and stranding motorists unfamiliar with traversing snow drifts and biting wind.
On Jan. 15 temperatures dropped to -8.80C in the highest ranges of the Nilgiris.
Dozens of flights were delayed, or cancelled beginning Jan. 4 as the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Center recorded temperatures of 5.80C in Bengaluru—the third coldest day on record. In Chenduvara (near the tea growing region in Munnar) temperatures plummeted to -40C on Jan. 7, frosting leaves and damaging tea trees. Valparai (3.50C) in Coimbatore and lower altitude cities Coonoor and Ooty (4.40C) also saw unusually cold weather during the past 10 days.
The United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) told the Economic Times it will take gardens “weeks if not months to recover from the prolonged aftereffects of the cold spell.”
It will be a difficult start to the year for South India’s tea industry, according to K. Mathew Abraham, managing director at Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP), the largest tea plantation company in South India, produces 25 million kilos annually.
Abraham said 2019 is the coldest winter in 10 years. He estimates crop losses at 700,000 kilos spread over 2,000 acres (887 hectares) at KDHP. “This was one of the coldest winters and comparable to 2008 when we lost crops on 2,800 acres (1,148 hectares) due to frost,” he told the Economic Times.
Munnar is located at 6,000 feet altitude in the Western Ghats where ground frost is generally light. While the Nilgiris are known for producing small quantities of frost tea, which is plucked from hearty varietals at gardens such as the Korakundah Tea Estate (elevation 8,000 feet) some 60 kilometers north of Coonoor and at Havaki Tea Estate in the Nilgiris, the severity of this weather could jeopardize even these hardy bushes.
“Frost has now hit about 40 percent of our tea area,” Rajesh Thomas, manager of Korakundah Estate, told the New Indian Express.
Tea thrives within a range of 20-300C. Trees like a nip of cold so long as it does not touch zero or sub-zero Centigrade.
“The quality of our tea has risen significantly, thanks to winter influence. The Japanese are keenly interested in procuring these top quality winter teas at premium prices,” said D. Hegde, director of The United Nilgiri Tea Estates.
However, if conditions in Kerala remain severe and are prolonged the frost will prevent leaf respiration and cause cell damage, leading to wilt. Direct sunlight beaming down on leaves causes burning. Leaves that are brown cannot be processed.
The impact of sustained frost will likely reduce overall production from 13 million kilos to 11 million kilos in the areas impacted. There are 13,000 hectares under tea in the Nilgiris where total production averages 27 million kilograms, according to the Tea Board of India. Tea gardens across all of South India produced 233 million kilograms in 2017, about 20 percent of India’s 1,325 million kilo annual yield.
Smallholders predominate in the Nilgiris were tea is picked throughout the year. The Times of India reports that many thousands of workers “have been struggling without adequate income for the past two weeks. With frost continuing to extensively damage tea leaves acrosss the district, they have no leaves to pick.”
India’s third most important tea producing region experienced devastating floods in September 2018 when monsoons displaced one million people and flooded lowland gardens. Kerala was drenched by 42 percent more rainwater than the historical average during this year’s monsoons. Losses due to flooding in Tamil Nadu were estimated at 11 percent through November, costing growers $820 million.
Mahesh Palwat, vice president-meteorology and climate change at Skymet Weather Services, attributed the weather to a gap in high pressure systems that allowed cold winds from the north to blow across south India. It is not the coldest winter of all, he said, predicting temperatures will rise several degrees beginning this week. He noted “the commencement of winter was late this year, but the southern peninsula had a sharper, sorter cold season this time.”
Sources: Tea Board of India, The Economic Times, Business Insider