Extreme heat in South Asia

You can also find this story on our Extreme Weather Stories publication.

Hundreds of millions of people and animals have been suffering with unprecedented temperatures in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In parts, such as New Delhi, temperatures have been above 43 degrees C / 110 degrees F for days. The city of Nawabshah reached 49.4 C or 121 F.

The impacts of this include:

Worsening forest wildfires

22 per cent of the area of forest cover in India falls under the highly and extremely fire-prone category. There were already 136,604 fire points in the country from 1 January to 31 March 2022 — which include winter months. There have also been blazes at landfill sites.

Human health

People are suffering heatstrokes, heat cramps, skin burns, heart problems, strokes, mental confusion and headache, and respiratory illnesses (in part due to the air pollution exacerbated by the weather and forest fires).

Electricity and water shortages

These shortages are due to the demand for energy for air conditioners and fridges, and the need for water to rehydrate and cool everything. In some cities e.g. Turbat in Pakistan, the energy is barely on so that cooling devices such as fridges can’t function.

Damage to crops and food shortages

In India, the yield from wheat crops has dropped by up to 50% in some of the areas worst hit by the extreme temperatures, worsening fears of global shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has already had a devastating impact on supplies.

Flood risk

The heatwave is causing the glaciers in the north to melt at an unprecedented rate. This puts thousands at risk of being caught in flood bursts.

Impacts on animals and biodiversity

There are some parts that are less inhabited by humans, but still inhabited by livestock and wildlife, where temperatures are less monitored and have risen to over 60C. In some parts of north-west India, images captured by satellites showed that surface land temperatures had exceeded 60C, unprecedented for this time of year when usual surface temperatures are between 45 and 55C.

Of course the impacts on human health are deadly and horrific, but we also have to consider all the other vertebrates and their interconnected wildlife, as they can’t so easily access shelter or cooling water, particularly when forest or grassland habitats are on fire.

Impacts on oceans and marine life

This tweet from Dr Roxy Koll shows the extent of the hot temperatures across the surrounding oceans. (Koll’s work has shown that the doubling of the Indo-Pacific warm pool in the Indian ocean is impacting on weather on land, but we should also be aware how warming temperatures at sea affect marine life.)

Reduced productivity

It’s too hot in daylight hours to do anything other than try to cool down, stay indoors and rest. This makes it hard for daytime work to take place safely, such as tourism, transport, construction or retail.

This extreme weather raises some serious questions:

How will the population across the region be fed, and how will damaged crops normally exported affect the economies of these countries? (I carried out this research on public attitudes to sustainable food & food insecurity last year, with colleagues in India and Brazil, and although there is rising concern about climate impacts in India there is relatively little awareness of how these problems can be tackled.)

How will the South Asian region be helped to cope and adapt by the global community, particularly in the North and by industries who have knowingly caused this harm? A study in Scientific Reports found that under a moderate climate change scenario (which is the current trajectory) the risk of heat waves in India is likely to increase tenfold by the end of the century.

See the report from which this diagram is taken.

For more coverage see this compilation of media reports from Carbon Brief.

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