Climate change means South Asia’s devastating heat wave a ‘sign of things to come,’ scientists warn

It made the intense heat sweeping through India and Pakistan 30 times more likely to occur — and future warming would make heat waves more common and hotter.

SHARE Climate change means South Asia’s devastating heat wave a ‘sign of things to come,’ scientists warn
An Indian farmer carries wheat crop harvested from a field on the outskirts of Jammu, India. An early and record-shattering heat wave in India has reduced wheat yields, raising questions about how the country will balance its domestic needs with ambitions to increase exports and make up for shortfalls due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

An Indian farmer carries wheat crop harvested from a field on the outskirts of Jammu, India. An early and record-shattering heat wave in India has reduced wheat yields, raising questions about how the country will balance its domestic needs with ambitions to increase exports and make up for shortfalls due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Channi Anand / AP

The devastating heat wave that’s baked India and Pakistan in recent months was made more likely by climate change and is a glimpse into the region’s future, international scientists say in a new study.

The World Weather Attribution group analyzed historical weather data that suggested early, long heat waves affecting a massive geographical area have been once-a-century events.

But the current level of global warming, caused by human-caused climate change, has made those heat waves 30 times more likely, it found.

If global heating increases to 3.6 degrees more than pre-industrial levels, heat waves like this could occur twice in a century and as often as once every five years, according to Arpita Mondal, a climate scientist with the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai who was part of the study.

“This is a sign of things to come,” Mondal said.

The findings might well be conservative. An analysis published earlier this month by the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office said the heat wave probably was made 100 times more likely by climate change and that such scorching temperatures are now likely to reoccur every three years.

The World Weather Attribution analysis aims to calculate how specific aspects of the heat wave, such as the length and the region affected, were made more likely by global warming.

“The real result is probably somewhere between ours and the Met Office result for how much climate change increased this event,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist with the Imperial College of London who also was a part of the World Weather Attribution study.

The heat wave has seen Indian cities and Pakistan consistently hit temperatures above 113 degrees in recent weeks. In Pakistan, scorching temperatures — over 122 degrees — were recorded in Jacobabad and Dadu. In India, New Delhi saw temperatures hit 120 degrees this month.

India sweltered through its hottest March since weather records there began being kept, in 1901. And April was the warmest on record in Pakistan and parts of India.

The effects have been cascading and widespread:

  • A glacier burst in Pakistan, sending floods downstream.
  • Te early heat scorched wheat crops in India, prompting the government 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 that affected millions.

There’s also a huge impact on health. 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 area most affected by heat stress, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of a dataset published by Columbia University’s climate school. India alone is home to more than one-third of the world’s population living in areas where instances of extreme heat are on the rise.

A woman covers her face with a scarf to protect herself during a heat-wave dust storm in Ahmedabad, India.

A woman covers her face with a scarf to protect herself during a heat-wave dust storm in Ahmedabad, India.

Ajit Solanki / AP

Experts say the heat wave underscores the need for the world to not just combat climate change by cutting down greenhouse gas emissions but also to adapt to its harmful impacts as quickly as possible.

Kids and older people are most at risk from heat stress, but its impact also falls inordinately on the poor, who might not have access to cooling or water and often live in crowded slums that are hotter than leafier, wealthier neighborhoods.

Rahman Ali, 42, a rag-picker in an eastern suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi, makes 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 a crowded slum offers little respite from the heat.

“What can we do?” the father of two said. “If I don’t work...we won’t eat.”

India’s western city of Ahmedabad was the first in South Asia to design a heat-wave plan for its population of over 8.4 million — in 2013. The plan includes an early-warning system to prepare for heat waves and provides information to schools so they can tweak their schedules.

The city also has been experimenting with roofing materials that absorb heat differently. The aim is to build roofs that’ll reflect the sun and bring down indoor temperatures by using white, reflective paint or cheap materials like dried grass, said Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health and helped design the 2013 plan.

India’s federal government is now working with 130 cities to develop similar plans.

But Mavalankar pointed to the lack of government warnings for most Indian cities and said local administrations had not “woken up to the heat.”

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