Heat Wave: India’s Scorching Reality

The country is facing an unprecedented climate change with record-breaking heat waves and their devastating impact on lives and livelihoods
By Abhijit Chanda
  • Heat waves have become a critical global health threat across 43 countries. Densely populated regions in Asia have been the most affected
  • The extraordinary heat of 2024 & 2023, led to wildfires and infrastructure damage. They might be the hottest years in over 100,000 years
  • Experts believe that Heat Wave trend is only going to intensify every year, driven by a warming planet
  • El Niño events can have significant impacts on ocean temperatures, currents, coastal fisheries, and weather patterns across the globe

OPEN a window. Take a deep breath. Feel the sun’s heat searing your skin. The heat is back, and it feels worse than ever. But is it an illusion? In the past 15 years, 12 of the hottest years ever recorded in India have occurred. The severe climate has devastated lives and livelihoods. Every breath we take is filled with pollutants from factories, vehicles, and other sources. India is the third most polluting country after China and the USA. As the country faces its hottest summer yet, the need for urgent climate action has never been more critical.

According to a UN IPCC report, if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current rate, global warming will increase by 1.5 degrees by 2040, leading to more frequent and intense weather events. Since the industrial revolution in 1850, temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees. It’s easy to think we are safe at home, but India is already feeling the effects of climate change.

BLISTERING SUMMERS

Scorching temperatures are hitting India in the midst of a six-week general election, in which nearly a billion people are eligible to vote, making campaigning and voting particularly challenging. The summer heat has arrived early, setting records and even claiming lives, and it’s expected to get much worse through May and June as summer actually begins. Schools have been forced to close weeks ahead of summer vacations, and large swaths of new crops have withered in parched farmland. 

Scientists warn of wide-ranging impacts in some of the world’s most densely populated regions, urging governments to take immediate action to prepare for the effects of climate change and mitigate human-caused global warming.

On May 19th, northwest India was engulfed by a severe Heat wave, with Delhi’s Najafgarh district recording the season’s highest temperature of 47.4°C, the highest in the country so far this season. Najafgarh was the warmest place in the country. This surpassed the previous high of 47.2°C in West Bengal’s Kalaikunda on April 30th.

India is bracing for a scorching summer, with the IMD’s seasonal forecast indicating that the nation will likely face higher-than-average temperatures during the day and night throughout the April-May-June period.

Several parts of the country recorded maximum temperatures over 47 celsius in May. Even in April people experienced scorching heat. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued “red alert” for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Odisha due to persistently high temperatures since mid-April, signalling that the heat wave conditions are expected to intensify before any relief is in sight.

The heat wave saw temperatures exceed 45°C in multiple locations across Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab. The situation is expected to worsen across the northwest plains. 

HEAT’S HEAVY TOLL

Climate Central has issued a stark warning that over half a billion people in India could be subjected to extreme heat conditions, a situation exacerbated by human-induced climate change. Andrew Pershing points out that the rise in nighttime temperatures is particularly alarming, adding to the severity of the heat events.

The World Weather Attribution group has also highlighted the disproportionate impact of climate change-induced Heat Waves on impoverished communities across Asia, turning what was once considered a manageable aspect of the environment into a relentless threat.

In 2024, the planet experienced its warmest decade since records began, with atmospheric CO2 levels reaching a concerning 425 parts per million (ppm). Anthropogenic climate change is turning ambient heat, a relatively banal manifestation of the sun, into an inevitable environmental hazard. 

Heat Waves have emerged as a critical global health threat, with a study from PLOS Medicine linking them to over 150,000 deaths annually across 43 countries between 1990 and 2019. The brunt of this impact has been borne by densely populated regions in Asia

The Ministry of Earth Sciences 2020 report indicates that India’s average temperature has risen by 0.15∘C per decade since 1950, with an uneven distribution of warming across the country. The frequency of warm days and nights has increased, with an average of seven and three additional days per decade, respectively, from 1951 to 2015. Currently, 23 States, mainly of plain and coastal regions, are considered more vulnerable to widespread heat impact. However, that doesn’t mean hilly states are safe. Although their maximum temperatures do not reach heat wave threshold levels of 45 degrees C, the population is experiencing higher temperatures compared to previous decades.

HEAT WAVE CRISIS

Heat waves have emerged as a critical global health threat, with a study from PLOS Medicine linking them to over 150,000 deaths annually across 43 countries between 1990 and 2019. This staggering figure represents about 1% of global deaths each year, a toll comparable to the fatalities from the global COVID-19 pandemic. The brunt of this impact has been borne by densely populated regions in Asia.

Recent research has shed light on the severity of the heat waves, revealing that the northern hemisphere experienced its hottest summer in 2024 & 2023 since the 1940s, and possibly the warmest in nearly 2000 years. This alarming trend is supported by two new studies that underscore the relentless rise in global temperatures and climate-warming emissions.

The extraordinary heat of 2024 & 2023, which led to wildfires, infrastructure damage, and energy crises, was confirmed by a study published in Nature. This study, which analysed meteorological data from the mid-1800s and tree ring data from nine northern locations, concluded that last summer’s temperatures were unprecedented in the past two millennia.

Anthropogenic climate change is turning ambient heat, a relatively banal manifestation of the sun, into an inevitable environmental hazard. In 2024, with the atmospheric carbon dioxide level reaching new heights of 425 ppm, we witnessed the warmest decade on record spanning  from 2014 to 2024

Jan Esper, a climate scientist at Johannes Gutenberg University, has highlighted the stark contrast between recent global warming and historical climate patterns. Europe, in particular, has seen a high rate of heat-related deaths, with countries like Greece, Malta, and Italy experiencing the most significant excess mortality. These extreme temperatures have increased the risk of health issues such as heart conditions, respiratory problems, and heat stroke.

The study also found that last year’s summer temperatures were 2.07°C (3.73°F) higher than pre-industrial levels across latitudes between 30° and 90° north. Tree ring data indicates that the summer of 2023 was, on average, 2.2°C (4°F) warmer than the average temperatures from AD 1 to 1890.

These findings are in line with predictions from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which had already suggested that 2024 and 2023 might be the hottest years in over 100,000 years. However, researchers like Jan Esper caution that confirming such long-term trends is difficult with current scientific methods, which include analysing marine sediments or peat bogs.

EL NIÑO EFFECT

Moreover, the El Niño phenomenon, known for its role in raising global temperatures, further exacerbated last summer’s heat, leading to more extended and severe Heat Waves and droughts. This pattern of extreme weather events underscores the urgent need for global attention and action to address the escalating climate crisis.

The El Niño phenomenon is a complex climate pattern that occurs irregularly in the equatorial Pacific region. It is characterised by the appearance of unusually warm, nutrient-poor water off the northern coasts of Peru and Ecuador, typically around late December. This warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean is known as the “warm phase” of a larger phenomenon called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The counterpart to El Niño is La Niña, which is the “cool phase” of ENSO and involves the unusual cooling of the region’s surface waters.

El Niño events can have significant impacts on ocean temperatures, currents, coastal fisheries, and weather patterns across the globe, from Australia to South America and beyond. These events typically occur at intervals ranging from two to seven years and can vary in intensity. The effects of El Niño include altered weather patterns such as increased rainfall in some regions and drought in others, impacting agriculture, water supply, and the occurrence of natural disasters like wildfires and cyclones.

UNDERSTANDING HEAT WAVES

Indians brave  the heat wave at the bank of Sangam, the confluence of Holy river Ganges , Yamuna and mythical Saraswati during the hot summer day in Prayagraj, India.

A heat wave is a period of abnormally high temperatures, surpassing the typical maximum for the North-Western parts of India during the summer season. These heat waves usually occur between March and June, occasionally extending into July. The extreme heat and associated atmospheric conditions can severely impact residents, causing physiological stress and sometimes resulting in death. 

In oceanic climate countries, heat waves are often accompanied by high humidity. They can significantly affect human health, agriculture, and infrastructure. During a heat wave, the risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke, dehydration, and exacerbation of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases increases significantly. 

CAUSES OF HEAT WAVES

Heat waves are typically caused by high pressure systems that trap heat and block other weather systems from moving into the area. This high-pressure system creates a “heat dome,” which acts like a lid, allowing the sun to bake the area below. Factors such as urbanisation, deforestation, and global warming contribute to the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves.

IMPACTS OF HEAT WAVES

Health:  Heat waves can cause severe health issues, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children, and those with pre-existing health conditions. The combination of high temperatures and humidity can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death.
Agriculture: Prolonged heat can damage crops, reduce yields, and lead to drought conditions, which affect food supply and water resources. The withering of new crops in India is a direct consequence of the current heat waves.
Infrastructure: High temperatures can strain power grids due to increased demand for air conditioning and cooling. Roads and railways can also suffer damage, such as buckling of surfaces and expansion of materials.

MITIGATION AND ADAPTATION
To mitigate the impacts of heat waves, it is crucial to develop and implement heat action plans. These include early warning systems, public awareness campaigns, and emergency response strategies. Improving urban planning to increase green spaces, enhancing building designs for better cooling, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices can help communities adapt to rising temperatures. Governments and policymakers must prioritise addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, investing in renewable energy sources, and promoting global cooperation to tackle the root causes of extreme weather events like heat waves. 

ASIA’S BATTLE WITH EL NIÑO

Asia has been hit by an early and fierce summer, described by some as the most severe climate event in history. Over the past decade, India has endured extreme weather, including heat waves and floods, on most days. This year, the summer heat arrived prematurely, breaking records, claiming lives, and it’s forecasted to intensify as the season progresses into May and June.

In Bangladesh, the scorching temperatures led to the closure of schools on multiple occasions. Myanmar reported temperatures reaching a staggering 46.1 degree C, with the heat index, which factors in humidity and wind, indicating even higher perceived temperatures.

Pakistan experienced a severe heat wave from March to June, which was particularly intense in Karachi. About 65 people were killed in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi due to the country’s worst heat wave in more than a decade.

Southeast Asia has also suffered under the heat wave, with the Philippines shutting down numerous schools due to drought and temperatures hitting 44.1 degree C, a record for early April. Thailand has reported 30 heat stroke-related deaths, advising residents to stay indoors, especially after Bangkok experienced a dangerous heat index of 52 degree Celsius. Vietnam faced similar conditions, prompting warnings about forest fires and heat-related health risks.

Weather historian Maximiliano Herrera has called this widespread temperature surge one of the most extreme events in climatic history. The cause of this extraordinary heat is partly attributed to El Niño, a climate pattern known for raising global temperatures. Although El Niño is currently diminishing, its effects have significantly exacerbated this summer’s heat in South and Southeast Asia.

Last year’s summer heat, which led to wildfires, infrastructure damage, and strained power supplies, was not only the hottest on record but also the warmest in two millennia, according to recent studies. This conclusion is based on meteorological data dating back to the mid-1800s and tree ring analyses, underscoring the unprecedented nature of recent global warming trends.

GROWING PERIL

India saw extreme weather on 241 out of 273 days in 2023. 1.8 million hectares of cropland were affected by such events between January 1 and September 30. In the report, government records and news reports were used to analyse losses and damages caused by extreme weather events at the seasonal, monthly and regional levels. They found that extreme weather events covered 314 days in total. These killed 3,026 people, affected at least 1.96 million hectares (ha) of cropland, destroyed 4,23,249 homes, and slaughtered almost 70,000 animals. IMD reports that the year was also the fifth warmest on record for the nation. In a 2021 study published in Current Science, there were 660 heat waves between 1978 and 2014 that resulted in 12,273 fatalities. Severe heat waves, which have caused thousands of lives throughout India over the last three decades, are now occurring more frequently as a result of climate change. Experts believe that this trend is only going to intensify every year, driven by a warming planet. We saw a scorching summer last year, with several regions of the country experiencing record-breaking heat.

Southeast Asia has also suffered under the heat wave. The Philippines shut down schools due to drought and record temperatures of 44.1°C in early April. Thailand reported 30 heat stroke deaths and advised residents to stay indoors after Bangkok’s heat index hit 52°C. Vietnam faced similar conditions, prompting warnings about forest fires and heat-related health risks

Heat waves are hazardous because of the “wet bulb temperature,” or the intersection of high temperature and high humidity. High atmospheric moisture makes it challenging for perspiration to evaporate and bodies to cool down, which causes an increase in internal body temperature that frequently proves fatal.

India has to import pricey coal to keep the lights on because of the sudden increase in demand for electricity to power cooling appliances. To prepare for a potential spike in demand this summer, the government has requested power plants to import the fuel once more.

Apart from this, India may continue to have dramatic differences in rainfall, with some areas experiencing tremendous downpours while others are experiencing droughts. That would imply that there might be significant fluctuations from one place to another even if the average rainfall stayed normal. This year, the El Nino weather pattern is also possible.

Extreme weather events have significant implications for agriculture, which employs a significant portion of the Indian population. Erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and intense floods can adversely affect crop production, leading to reduced yields, crop failures, and financial hardships for farmers.  

FINANCIAL LOSS

According to the Climate Transparency Report 2023 created by a global collaboration of groups, the nation’s exposure to heat resulted in the loss of 167 billion potential labour hours between 1990 and 1999, a 39% increase. The report says, India’s service, manufacturing, agricultural, and construction sectors lost $159 billion in revenue in 2021, or 5.4% of its gross domestic product, as a result of the extreme heat. If the worldwide average temperature rises by 1.5°C, it is anticipated that India’s labour productivity will fall by 5% from the 1986–2006 reference period. If global temperatures rise by 2.5°C, the reduction in worker productivity will be 2.1 times greater, and 2.7 times greater in a 3°C scenario.

Between 2016–2021, extreme events such as cyclones, flash floods, floods, and landslides caused damage to crops in over 36 million hectares, a $3.75 billion loss for farmers in the country, the report said.  At 1.5°C of warming, the country’s yearly damage from river floods is anticipated to rise by about 49%. Cyclone damage is expected to rise by 5.7%. In the past 30 years, India’s rainfall pattern has shifted, having an effect on numerous economic sectors like forestry, agriculture, and fisheries.  “When compared to the precipitation levels during the reference era, snowfall in India is anticipated to decline under the 1.5°C scenario by 13%. According to the analysis, the reduction is anticipated to be 2.4 times greater under a 3°C warming scenario.

There are long-term strategies in place to address the impact of climate change on weather events in South Asia. These strategies focus on both mitigation, to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change, and adaptation, to prepare for and manage the effects of climate change

Mentions of heat stroke have been found in literature since ancient times. With rising global temperatures, dangerous high heat has begun permeating our routine indoor spaces. This gradual expansion of the realm of extreme heat is potentially the gravest consequence of climate change for India. 

LONG -TERM STRATEGY

There are long-term strategies in place to address the impact of climate change on weather events in South Asia. These strategies focus on both mitigation, to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change, and adaptation, to prepare for and manage the effects of climate change. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has highlighted the need for cohesive strategies in South Asia that include improving the monitoring and tracking of adaptation spending and equitably increasing the effective price of carbon while protecting low-income and vulnerable households. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also emphasised the importance of adaptation and mitigation efforts in Asia. They note that significant warming has intensified threats to social and economic sustainability and that rising temperatures increase the likelihood of heatwaves, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

The World Bank has outlined a South Asia Climate Roadmap, which aims to help the region ramp up its climate action through key transitions in agriculture, food, water, land systems, energy, transport, and urban development.  Additionally, South Asia is pioneering climate-smart solutions, including innovative community approaches to coastal resilience, scaling up renewable energy, and regenerative forestry, as part of the efforts to build resilience and reduce emissions.

These strategies and initiatives are part of a broader global effort to combat climate change and its impacts on weather patterns, with a focus on sustainable development and resilience building in vulnerable regions like South Asia.

Abhijit Chanda

The author is a writer, podcaster, anchor, Youtuber and science communicator with a passion for promoting science literacy and critical thinking. His most popular work includes an interview with Dr Abby Philips on the science behind Ayurveda, Dr. Sumaiya Shaikh on her writing for Alt News Science and Dr. Paul A Offit on the vaccines developed for COVID-19. You can find his work on www.berationable.com

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