Nearly 50 degrees for days: India’s heat wave shows the complexity of the climate crisis

Temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius – this has been the norm in India and Pakistan for days. The record temperatures are much more than random outliers. Experts see this as a clear sign of a climate catastrophe with far-reaching consequences.

May is usually the hottest month of the year in India and Pakistan. This year, however, temperatures had already reached record highs in April. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), the average high temperature for northwest and central India in April was the highest since records began 122 years ago. It was 35.9 and 37.78 degrees Celsius. In the capital New Delhi, the thermometer soared above 40 degrees Celsius for four consecutive days in April.

The situation is similar in neighboring Pakistan. The cities of Jacobabad and Sibi in the southeastern province of Sindh recorded maximum temperatures of 47 degrees Celsius on April 29, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Bureau (PMD). According to PMD, this is the highest temperature recorded that day in a city in the northern hemisphere. March was already the hottest in the region since the start of the measurements.

Expert opinion on the causes of these extreme heat waves is clear. According to an analysis by Mariam Zachariah and Friederike Otto of Imperial College London, they are occurring more frequently than before due to climate change. “Before the rise in global temperatures, we would have experienced the heat that India experienced this month about once in 50 years,” Zachariah told The Times of India. “Now such an event occurs much more frequently – approximately every four years.”

“The current heat wave in India has been made even hotter by climate change, which is the result of human activities such as the burning of coal and other fossil fuels,” Otto told The Times of India. This is now the case for all heat waves in the world. Due to climate change and global warming, there are now eight times more monthly heat records than you would expect in a stable climate, said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for climate impact research, on Deutschlandfunk.

adaptability limit

The effects of these heat waves are severe. High temperatures pose an immediate threat to human health. Above all, people who work outdoors and have little opportunity to cool off are at risk of overheating and dehydration. This particularly affects the poorest people in the country, rickshaw drivers, street vendors, day laborers and the homeless. Those who can spend the hottest hours of the day in ideally cooled interiors. In the early morning and especially in the evening, people try to do their shopping, for example. Local newspapers report that school children are bleeding from their noses on the way to school because they cannot escape the heat. Some Indian states, including West Bengal and Odisha, have announced school closures due to rising temperatures.

According to a WHO analysis, the combination of high temperatures and high humidity is particularly stressful for the human body. But these are exactly the conditions in India and Pakistan. The body temperature of a healthy person is around 37 degrees Celsius and can also rise to 38-39 degrees Celsius during exercise. Heat balance is achieved primarily through respiration and perspiration. However, if the inhaled air is warmer than body temperature, the cooling effect is lost. The same goes for sweating in high humidity. This puts a strain on the body, which manifests itself in an increase in respiratory and heart rate and can lead to exhaustion, cramps or even death. An international study in 2021 came to the conclusion that one in three heat-related deaths can be attributed to climate change.

Climatologist Erich Fischer speculates that people are reaching the limits of their adaptation to conditions in India and Pakistan. The Zurich scientist tells Swiss broadcaster SRF that it is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, where about ten percent of the world’s population lives. People live close together, air pollution is high, nights are hot. A lot of people wouldn’t have a chance to calm down. If such heat waves last longer, people without shelter in air-conditioned rooms will soon be unable to live there. An increase in mortality is already expected, as has already been demonstrated during previous heat waves.

power cuts and water shortages

Due to the high temperatures, air conditioners and fans are running at full speed. This led to a considerable increase in electricity consumption. Meanwhile, several Indian states have had power supply problems, at least temporarily, as coal reserves have been largely depleted. To fill the bottleneck, the authorities used additional trains to transport the coal to the affected regions. To this end, passenger traffic has been partially reduced.

In many areas, already scarce water is becoming even scarcer. That and tougher conditions for farm laborers mean significant crop failures are already in sight. In the northern state of Punjab, known as “India’s breadbasket”, experts estimate a loss of more than 500 kilograms of wheat per hectare. One of the reasons for this is that the heat allowed the grain to ripen very quickly. Cereal grains remained smaller than normal years. India’s plans to compensate for the loss of grain deliveries from Ukraine as a result of the war were also in jeopardy.

fatal cycle

In an analysis of the heat wave, NASA also mentions the very rapid melting of mountain snow in the northern regions of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, as well as numerous forest fires. As of April 27, there were more than 300 major wildfires across the country, according to the Forest Survey of India. Climate impact researcher Rahmstorf also points out that the current heat wave increases the risk that others will follow. Because dry soil and desiccated vegetation lead to less evaporation, which could cool the soil.

No real cooling is expected in India and Pakistan in the coming days. And experts say the climate crisis will cause more frequent and prolonged heat waves that will affect more than a billion people in these two countries alone.

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