India: Hot February raises fears of new extreme heat waves | Climate change

Last year, Indian meteorologists sounded the first ever heat wave of the year in March, anticipating a summer that arrived unusually early – and brought some of the most extreme temperatures in India’s recorded history. This year, they are sounding the alarm even earlier.

India’s Meteorological Department issued the year’s first heatwave warning of the year on Sunday, warning that parts of western India would reach 37 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, other parts of India are experiencing temperatures that are normally seen in mid-March and above normal.

The abnormal temperatures are worrying for experts who say India’s spring season – crucial for wheat production – is dangerously shrinking.

“It’s not even March yet and it already seems like a repeat of last year, where spring was missing”. The pace of change is alarming,” said Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a researcher at Center for Policy Researchcentered on heat waves.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, one of the hottest places in the country, last week was the hottest for this season in 70 years.

In some Himalayan cities, the lack of moisture from the winds has reduced the amount of winter rain and snow, leading to record temperatures this week. Mrutyunjay​ Mohapatra, head of the Indian Meteorological Department, said that a downward movement of air, as well as a particular wind pattern over Gujarat, known as an anticyclonic circulation, combined to create the climate hot – a repeat of last year.

In 2022, India took the brunt of an extreme heat wave
REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Temperature rises in wheat-growing states are particularly concerning, given that last year’s heat lowered wheat production by about 10%, or nearly 11 million metric tons. India, the world’s second largest wheat producer, ended up banning exports, which contributed to the global wheat supply crisis of the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen how these heat waves have economy-wide consequences, taking the conversation beyond morbidity and mortality,” said lead researcher Aditya Valiathan ​Pillai.

Anup Kumar Srivastava, adviser to the National Disaster Management Authority, said that this year there have already been problems not only with wheat production, but also for chickpeas and mustard seeds – crucial Indian crops. In addition, a coal shortage last year led to a fuel crunch at India’s thermal power stations, as demand for electricity for air conditioners and fans soared in tandem with a recovering post-pandemic economy.

Gleaners search for objects that can be recycled during the aftermath of a dump fire in New Delhi
REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

“This country normally sees heat waves between April 1st and June 30th,” said Srivastava. “But we are already seeing increased demand for electricity and labor productivity is already decreasing. We will see more diseases moving directly from winter to summer.”

Last year saw the most persistent, widespread and severe heat in India’s history – a once-in-a-hundred-year event. But unlike last year, scientists now predict that there is still a high probability that El Nino, the warming of the Pacific Ocean, will further increase the severity of India’s weather this year. Recent years have witnessed the opposite effect of La Nina, the cooling of these waters.

The National Disaster Management Authority met last week with its state counterparts to discuss how to improve its more than 100 local-level heat action plans, a set of instructions for preparing for and responding to heat waves.

Dileep Mavalankar, the director of the Indian Institute of Public Health in Gujarat, who was instrumental in some of India’s earliest heat action plans, believes plans need to activate their preparedness phases much earlier.

“We are feeling it today [em Gujarat]”, he said. “Every year it seems these temperatures move earlier by about a month.”

In addition, notes Dileep Mavalankar, states need to compare mortality figures with previous years to determine heat-related deaths, a dataset that is currently underdeveloped in the country. “The mortality from heat waves is very subtle”, but it exists, he warns. Scientists say that health can be greatly affected without the transition from spring from winter to summer.

“Five years ago, you would never have thought that something like this could happen in consecutive years,” warns researcher Aditya Valiathan​Pillai. “To the climate change continue to shift boundaries, severities, and timelines.”

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