Alarming change in weather patterns
The risks of climate change have reached a tipping point — it can no longer be neglected. Heat waves are, perhaps, the most lethal weather phenomenon in the world. The case is more grim in the case of India but the challenge needs an international response
The characteristic chill of winter this year has been conspicuous by its absence. The premature fading away of the winter season is all too evident with the air conditioners being serviced and readied in a flurry and woollens being mothballed and packed away.
This pattern of weather playing truant is mainly due to the combined impact of climate change and global warming. In fact, according to the Indian Meteo-rological Department (IMD)’s prediction, this change in the weather is all set to get worse in the coming summer months with severe heat waves expected to hit most of India.
The IMD estimates that there is a 52 per cent probability of grid point maximum temperatures in the core heat wave zone during March to May 2018 to be above normal.
Scorching hot summer has already knocked the door of some States such as Chhattisgarh, which is recording higher than normal temperatures. Chhattisgarh’s current maximum temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius, which is three to four degrees higher than usual. The early onset of summer means there is a higher probability of heat waves that too a bit early than the normal schedule.
Making things worse is the expected change in seasonal average temperatures which are expected to be above normal by at least one degree Celsius, especially in the northern and central parts of the country such as Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, parts of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat.
High temperatures are poised to wreak a global havoc as well. It is expected that if the greenhouse gas emissions continue to fuel global warming and climate change at the current pace, the year 2040 will witness urban areas registering 50 degrees Celsius as average temperature, making sweltering temperatures a new normal for our cities.
These conditions can be detrimental to human survival. Humans have an upper limit to heat tolerance; beyond which in extreme cases, death occurs. Though human death rates do climb on extremely cold days too, fatalities increase much more steeply on extremely hot and humid ones.
Heat by itself is not the major risk factor in heat waves but rather it is a combination of heat and humidity. Heat and humidity both have an effect on the body’s ability to maintain its internal temperature. The internal temperature of the human body is 37 degrees Celsius, while the temperature on the surface is around 35 degrees Celsius.
Sweating is the key process to this constant temperature modulation and the ability for moisture to evaporate is affected by heat and humidity. While cold weather can be tackled with warm clothes, avoiding heat stress requires access to fans or air conditioning, which is not always available.
The predictions of ultra-high temperatures as new normal are not new. A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also predicted that by the year 2100, heat waves in South Asia would carry heat and humidity beyond the limits of human survivability if current emission levels continue, and the worst part the news is that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are likely to be the most severely hit countries.
As per the IMD prediction, heat waves are going have to have free run in 2018 and the intensity of these heat waves will impact mostly the agricultural sector as the farmers are exposed to sun. The city dwellers too will feel the pronounced impact of heat waves as a heavy concentration of concrete and glass along with limited natural cover increases ambient temperatures in the cities creating the heat island effect. Studies have found that by 2100, cities could get up to as much as eight degree Celsius hotter than current levels. These factors, combined with the typically round-the-clock physical labour in cities, is set to cause heavy and disproportionate mortality in cities as compared to the countryside.
Heat waves are now the second biggest natural cause of death. According to Government data, nearly 15,500 people have died of heat strokes, more than floods, earthquakes and cold waves. Still, it is believed that ambiguity in deaths associated with heat waves has kept the number down. It is difficult to ascertain the role of heat in individual deaths as it not only causes stroke but also affects the functioning of nearly every vital body organ.
Despite evidence of ever increasing the risk associated with heat waves, the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009 do not consider them to be a natural calamity.
The Government, therefore, is unable to devote appropriate financial and infrastructure resources to the problem. This must be rectified immediately. Though the State and local Governments have initiated preventive and adaptive action with city-level action plans, the level of concerted action required is still lacking and the mounting human fatalities each summer are the proof of the same.
The Government needs to quickly embark on a twin objective strategy that not only seeks to cut back on the adverse impacts of rising temperatures and heat waves but also aims at rolling back human activities that are contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions and
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
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