(NEW DELHI, India)—The devastating heat wave that has baked India and Pakistan in recent months was made more likely by climate change and is a glimpse of the region’s future, international scientists said in a study released Monday.
According to the World Weather Attribution Group, historical weather data suggested that long, intense heat waves which impact large areas of land are common, rare events that occur once a century. These heat waves are now 30x more likely due to the human-caused global warming.
Arpita Mondal (climate scientist, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai) said that if global warming rises to 2° Celsius (3.66 degrees Fahrenheit), then heat waves such as this may occur twice in one century, and once every five years.
“This is a sign of things to come,” Mondal said.
The results are conservative: An analysis published last week by the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office said the heat wave was probably made 100 times more likely by climate change, with such scorching temperatures likely to reoccur every three years.
World Weather Attribution analyses are different. It is trying to quantify how certain elements of the heatwave, including the extent and location impacted by it, have been made more probable due to global warming. “The real result is probably somewhere between ours and the (U.K.) Met Office result for how much climate change increased this event,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the Imperial College of London, who was also a part of the study.
It is not difficult to see the destruction the heatwave has caused. In the last weeks, temperatures in Pakistan and India consistently topped 45C (113F). Temperatures of over 50C (122F!) were reported in Pakistan at places such as Dadu and Jacobabad. Temperatures reached 49C in New Delhi, India’s capital.
India experienced the hottest March since 1901, and the warmest April in Pakistan and other parts of India. The effects have been cascading and widespread: A glacier burst in Pakistan, sending floods downstream; the early heat scorched wheat crops in India, forcing it to ban exports to nations reeling from food shortages due to Russia’s war in Ukraine; it also resulted in an early spike in electricity demand in India that depleted coal reserves, resulting in acute power shortages affecting millions.
Also, consider the health implications. At least 90 people have died in the two nations, but the region’s insufficient death registration means that this is likely an undercount. South Asia is the most affected by heat stress, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of a dataset published Columbia University’s climate school. India alone is home to more than a third of the world’s population that lives in areas where extreme heat is rising.
Experts believe the global heat wave is a reminder that not only must we reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to respond to it’s harmful consequences as soon as possible. The elderly and children are at greatest risk of heat stress. However, the impact on the poor, who are often living in hotter areas than those in leafier and wealthier communities, is inordinately greater.
Rahman Ali, 42, a ragpicker in an eastern suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi earns less than $3 a day by collecting waste from people’s homes and sorting it to salvage whatever can be sold. It’s backbreaking work and his tin-roofed home in the crowded slum offers little respite from the heat.
“What can we do? If I don’t work…we won’t eat,” said the father of two.
Some Indian cities tried to solve the problem. Ahmedabad, a western Indian city was one of the first to develop a heat wave plan. Its 8.4 million population had been planning for it since 2013. The plan includes an early warning system that tells health workers and residents to prepare for heat waves, empowers administrations to keep parks open so that people can shade and provides information to schools so they’re able to tweak their schedules.
The city has also been trying to “cool” roofs by experimenting with various materials absorb heat differently. Their aim is to build roofs that’ll reflect the sun and bring down indoor temperatures by using white, reflective paint or cheaper materials like dried grass, said Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health in western Indian city Gandhinagar and helped design the 2013 plan.
Most Indian cities are less prepared and India’s federal government is now working with 130 cities in 23 heat wave-prone states for them to develop similar plans. The federal government requested that states educate their health staff on how to manage heat-related diseases and provide cooling devices in hospitals.
But Mavalankar, who wasn’t part of the study, pointed to the lack of government warnings in newspapers or TV for most Indian cities and said that local administrations had just not “woken up to the heat.”
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