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Early heat wave baking India is a sign of worse to come

Climate Central reports: The early heat this year is due to a shift in wind patterns that has seen air flowing in from the south and west, across dry areas that quickly cause that air to warm. That heat-waves will become more common and intense is one of the clearest outcomes of human-driven global warming.

Andrea Thompson, Climate Central

Temperatures across northern India, including the capital New Delhi, are set to soar well above 100°F (37.8°C) through the weekend and into next week thanks to a pre-monsoon heat wave that has set in somewhat earlier than normal.

Such heat waves are expected to become both more common and more intense as the world warms from the continued buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, in India and elsewhere, posing a threat to public health. Studies have suggested that India will be a particular hotspot for populations stressed by the combination of extreme heat and humidity.

Heat waves in recent years and the high number of deaths associated with them have served as wake-up calls for several Indian cities, prompting them to institute “heat-action plans” to better warn their citizens of the potential impacts of extreme heat.

Heat waves typically set in across India during the period from April to June, before the cooling monsoon rains arrive. But the heat this year began a bit earlier than normal, with New Delhi recording it hottest March in seven years, Steven Bowen, director of impact forecasting at the reinsurance company Aon Benfield, said.

A few spots in the western state of Gujarat had their hottest temperatures ever recorded in April, all at or above 112°F (44.6°C) on April 13.

“Parts of India have seen anomalously warm conditions for the last couple of weeks, which is a bit earlier than normal,” Bowen said.

That heat waves will become more common and more intense is one of the clearest outcomes of human-driven global warming. As average temperatures rise, the heat waves that act on top of them become hotter and hotter and it becomes easier to reach those extreme temperatures.

Global temperatures have already risen by nearly 2°F (1°C) over the past century. Countries, including India, have agreed to curb the emissions of greenhouse gases that are heating the planet to limit temperature rise to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) by the end of the century.

Because of this temperature rise, the heat waves that today only happen about once every 20 years could become an annual threat, a 2016 study showed.

The early heat this year is due to a shift in wind patterns that has seen air flowing in from the south and west, across dry areas that quickly cause that air to warm, Bowen said. Dry soils from the unusually dry winter and spring across the country also provided a heat boost, as have warmer-than-normal ocean waters nearby.

How long the heat wave season will last depends on when the monsoon finally brings summer rains. This could depend on whether an El Niño — a natural climate cycle that impacts weather patterns worldwide — develops again this year, which U.S. forecasters have said has a 50 percent chance of happening. If an El Niño emerges early, it could delay the onset of the monsoon season as it did during the 2015-2016 El Niño and prolong the heat.

Climate change has helped shift the odds of extreme heat.
Credit: WXshift

Temperatures over the next few days are expected to reach more than 104°F (40°C) over a wide swath of western and central India, according to forecasts from the India Meteorological Department.

Research has already detected the fingerprints of warming on heat waves occurring today, including previous ones in India, such as a major event in 2015 that killed an estimated 2,300 across the country.

While a study conducted by researchers working with Climate Central’s World Weather Attribution program didn’t find a clear-cut signal of climate change, a study detailed in a special annual issue of the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that the heat indices recorded during that event (as well as a separate one in Pakistan) were about 800 times more likely with climate change. The heat index is a measure that combines the effects of heat and humidity.

When temperatures and humidity are both high, the body’s natural cooling system — the evaporation of sweat — is suppressed. The very young, very old and the infirm are the most susceptible to heat stress.

That 1-2 punch of heat and humidity will likely put millions at increased risk of health impacts during heat waves in the future, other research has shown. A 2015 study found that areas of the world where population is expected to rise the most, including India, will also see some of the biggest increases in extreme heat stress events, which combine heat and humidity.

Heat stress is particularly a concern in India, where many people work outdoors, in farming or on construction sites, and there can be a lack of cooling centers and ready access to clean water.

Forecast high temperatures across India (in °C) for April 15, 2017.
Credit: India Meteorological Department

Recent heat waves have acted to raise awareness of the issue across India. After 1,300 died during a 2010 heat wave in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state, the city worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council to set up a heat-action plan. The plan, which launched in 2013, worked to raise awareness of the dangers of heat stress with the city’s residents with messages on billboards and even on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Officials credit that plan for reducing the number of deaths the city saw during the 2015 heat wave: In a city of 7 million people, only 20 heat-related deaths were recorded during the event.

“The Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan is a necessary step toward protecting our communities from extreme heat and a valuable model for future climate adaptation efforts in other communities,” Ahmedabad Mayor Gautam Shah said in a statement from the NRDC.

This year, the plan was expanded to include adding cool roofs — by whitewashing, or adding tarps or white ceramic tiles to reduce indoor temperatures — and LED displays around the city that burn orange and red to correspond to heat warnings.

Several other cities in India have followed suit, including Nagpur and surrounding cities in Maharashtra state and Bhubaneswar in Odisha state, and others have plans in the works.

“Heat waves will continue to affect India, particularly in a warming world. Based on the recent record-breaking temperatures, [heat action plans] cannot come fast enough,” Anjali Jaiswal, director of NRDC’s India Initiative wrote in a 2016 blog post.

Heat wave in India: Climate change is here, prepare for irregular weather, says senior meteorologist
Prachee Kulkarni, Firstpost
Temperatures across the country have reached soaring highs. A village called Bhira from Raigad district in Maharashtra recorded the worlds second highest temperature of 46.5°C on Tuesday. This was considered abnormal as Bhira lies in the coastal region. What are the reasons for this? Firstpost spoke to Jeevanprakash Kulkarni, a senior meteorologist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, who is presently associated with a forum called Satarkindia that issues warning based on various climatic scenarios. (Related: Three sunstroke deaths in Maharashtra are the first heat casualties of 2017)

IMD predicts intense heat waves this summer
Umang Jalan, Down to Earth
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has warned of a heat wave in the coming weeks. According to forecasts, temperatures are likely to rise above 40 degrees Celsius in most parts of the country and heat wave-like conditions are likely to develop in Gujarat, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Such extreme temperature events are becoming a norm in India and other sub-tropical countries around the world. According to reports, climate change is likely to have caused this increase in incidences and severity of heat waves. IMD estimates that average temperatures between March and May in recent years, have increased by 1-1.2°C above the 100-year-average. (Related: The drought in Kerala is so acute that farmers are sinking borewells on the river bed)

Why is India getting hotter?
Jacob Koshy, The Hindu
The general answer would be global warming, but ‘how’ isn’t clear. All statistics on heat waves listed here refer to trends between March and June, but there’s no evidence that there are more heat waves in March as opposed to April or May. Studies have linked an increase in heat waves to more increase in El Nino events, or years marked by an anomalous heating in the Central Pacific Ocean that’s linked to a weakening of the Indian monsoon. Particularly, years succeeding an El Nino event are said to be linked to heat waves and mortality.

India’s heat waves spell doom for the working poor
Nagraj Adve, The Wire
Deaths due to heat waves in India have been in the thousands–in the years 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2015 in particular. Numbers, which are how the deaths are usually reported, are class- and gender-neutral. It’s one of the grave ironies of global warming that those least responsible for it are affected the most by it.

Searing Heat Waves Could Become Annual Threat
Andrea Thompson, Climate Central
The scorching, deadly heat waves that today strike only about once every 20 years could become an annual occurrence for more than half the world if nothing is done to curb emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, a new study reported Tuesday. The work, detailed in the journal Climatic Change, also points to the worst heat waves of the future being much more intense. The results jibe with other research looking at how heat waves might change as the world warms, as well as those that have found that global warming has already juiced the heat waves we see today.


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