Lifeline for about one-sixth of the world’s population in the subcontinent, the Indian summer monsoon (ISM) is an integral part of the annual cycle of the winds (reversal of winds with seasons), coupled with a strong annual cycle of precipitation (wet summer and dry winter). For over a century, high socioeconomic impacts of ISM rainfall (ISMR) in the region have driven scientists to attempt to predict the year-to-year variations of ISM rainfall. A remarkably stable phenomenon, making its appearance every year without fail, the ISM climate exhibits a rather small year-to-year variation (the standard deviation of the seasonal mean being 10% of the long-term mean), but it has proven to be an extremely challenging system to predict. Even the most skillful, sophisticated models are barely useful with skill significantly below the potential limit on predictability. Understanding what drives the mean ISM climate and its variability on different timescales is, therefore, critical to advancing skills in predicting the monsoon. A conceptual ISM model helps explain what maintains not only the mean ISM but also its variability on interannual and longer timescales.
The annual ISM precipitation cycle can be described as a manifestation of the seasonal migration of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) or the zonally oriented cloud (rain) band characterized by a sudden “onset.” The other important feature of ISM is the deep overturning meridional (regional Hadley circulation) that is associated with it, driven primarily by the latent heat release associated with the ISM (ITCZ) precipitation. The dynamics of the monsoon climate, therefore, is an extension of the dynamics of the ITCZ. The classical land–sea surface temperature gradient model of ISM may explain the seasonal reversal of the surface winds, but it fails to explain the onset and the deep vertical structure of the ISM circulation. While the surface temperature over land cools after the onset, reversing the north–south surface temperature gradient and making it inadequate to sustain the monsoon after onset, it is the tropospheric temperature gradient that becomes positive at the time of onset and remains strongly positive thereafter, maintaining the monsoon. The change in sign of the tropospheric temperature (TT) gradient is dynamically responsible for a symmetric instability, leading to the onset and subsequent northward progression of the ITCZ. The unified ISM model in terms of the TT gradient provides a platform to understand the drivers of ISM variability by identifying processes that affect TT in the north and the south and influence the gradient.
The predictability of the seasonal mean ISM is limited by interactions of the annual cycle and higher frequency monsoon variability within the season. The monsoon intraseasonal oscillation (MISO) has a seminal role in influencing the seasonal mean and its interannual variability. While ISM climate on long timescales (e.g., multimillennium) largely follows the solar forcing, on shorter timescales the ISM variability is governed by the internal dynamics arising from ocean–atmosphere–land interactions, regional as well as remote, together with teleconnections with other climate modes. Also important is the role of anthropogenic forcing, such as the greenhouse gases and aerosols versus the natural multidecadal variability in the context of the recent six-decade long decreasing trend of ISM rainfall.