More than a billion people across South Asia once again saw thermometers soaring to around 45°C in the spring. However, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) then reported a record-breaking temperature of 50°C in mid-May, fuelling concerns about the unprecedented intensity, severity and spatial extent of the 2022 heat waves.
With high temperatures starting earlier than usual and lasting much longer, scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative said that climate change had made the devastating early heat in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely. Sadly, the negative climate impacts that have been warned of for so long are here, and it's time to sweat.
Facing a disturbed system
"The farming community in northern India have seen winter and summer starting 15 days earlier, meaning the temperature variations have been severely damaging the agriculture process. Village elders can no longer predict seasonal weather conditions because the changes have been so aggressive. The system is disturbed," observes Arvind Godara, the director of the food brand Natureland Organics and founder of AgriBolo, a digital agritech platform that works with 250,000 farmers across four of the hottest states in India.
The farming community in northern India have seen winter and summer starting 15 days earlier. Village elders can no longer predict seasonal weather conditions because the changes have been so aggressive. The system is disturbed.
Arvind Godara, Founder, AgriBolo
"It used to be just the government and diplomats urging climate action here. Now, even small stakeholders know it is time to act having seen their crop yields and income decreasing," he says.
India's production of wheat and mustard have both recorded losses of 25-30% so far this year due to the extreme heat, as well as the drastic overnight changes in humidity and temperature. Barley, gram, oats, and several spice crops have all been severely hit, while the yield of Kinnow mandarins, apricots, and plums have all halved.
"Everybody's concerned and everybody's playing their part the best they can. Agriculture is a way of life. We should not think it as a business; it is our responsibility to feed the growing population. Going forward, we'll be shifting towards more weather-resistant crop varieties and planting more shade trees because greenery is the only immediate cooling solution," he states.
AgriBolo is also helping farmers switch from stubble burning to using naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes that decompose crop residue. In addition, petrol-powered water pumps are being replaced by solar power, drip irrigation is being used to save water, and underground water recharging facilities are being developed in numerous villages to improve the groundwater level.
Protecting the vulnerable
While extreme temperatures are negatively affecting productivity and agricultural output, the oppressive heat is also a substantial health risk for vulnerable groups and the millions of manual labourers working outdoors. In fact, over 2,500 people in India lost their lives in 2015 during one of the deadliest heat waves on record.
We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as expand equitable access to reliable artificial cooling and ensure the energy grids can support that increased demand. We must take urgent action now. Every increment of reduced risk makes a difference.
Casey Ivanovich, Climate Scientist
"We cool down primarily by evaporating sweat from our skin, but that process becomes less efficient as the humidity rises. Exposure to sufficient thresholds of heat and humidity will eventually lead to heat stress," explains PhD candidate Casey Ivanovich, whose research at New York's Columbia University into the physical mechanisms controlling humid heat highlights the potential risks to human health.
Understanding the causes of extreme humid heat can better help public health officials determine how to prepare for the risks of extreme heat stress, adds Ivanovich. To minimise future loss of life following the 2015 heat wave, IMD implemented a forecasting system that gives the government time to plan and prepare for the season with different authorities.
"In February, we predicted the heat wave conditions over northwest and central India. We repeated it again in March," notes Dr Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General of Meteorology at IMD and India's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) representative. "We used to only give heat wave forecasts, but now we deliver specific information on a variety of factors like humidity and wind."
He also underscored that the forecast targets those vulnerable to heat waves, such as farm workers, and trust in it remains high thanks to an accuracy rate of 92%. While the IMD plans to develop its forecasts, it is also aggregating all the socioeconomic activities, such as rail and road transport, power and water availability, on its website, so all the sectors likely to be affected by the heat are working together and are trying to improve ahead of next year.
What was seen across South Asia is a poignant and visual example that the effects of climate change are here, and they're not going anywhere, says Ivanovich.
"We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as expand equitable access to reliable artificial cooling and ensure the energy grids can support that increased demand. We must take urgent action now. Every increment of reduced risk makes a difference."
Editor at Spoon Finland