Climate change: Deadly heat at the door

The IMD recorded temperatures over 45°C in 83 meteorological stations in Northern India.
Commuters cover their heads with scarves to shield themselves from the scorching sun on a hot summer day, in Prayagraj on Thursday
Commuters cover their heads with scarves to shield themselves from the scorching sun on a hot summer day, in Prayagraj on Thursday Photo | ANI

NEW DELHI: When the thermometer at Delhi’s meteorological station in Mungeshpur read 52.9°C on May 29 and the one at Nagpur’s Automatic Weather Station (AWS) showed 56°C on May 30, it triggered panic across the country since they were seen as tipping points in the climate change fallout. Soon, a team of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) started investigating whether there was any equipment malfunction or were there local factors behind the record breaking temperatures since the IMD’s inception in 1875. The Met office has since clarified that Nagpur’s 56°C was due to a sensor error.

Be that as it may, Delhi has been baking at close to 50°C since the last few days. In fact, many parts of North, West, East and Central India turned into a frying pan as temperatures have been ranging between 45°C and 51°C since the past seven days.

For instance, Phalodi and Churu in Rajasthan crossed 50°C for a couple of days, Sirsa in Haryana recorded over 50°C and many cities such as Chandigarh (46°C), Amethi (47.2°C), Karwar (38°C), Prayagraj (48.8°C), Agra (48°C), Rohtak (48.8°C) set a new records of maximum temperatures in their respective regions.

The IMD recorded temperatures over 45°C in 83 meteorological stations in Northern India. The figures were up to 9°C above normal, as severe heat wave conditions prevailed over many parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana-Chandigarh-Delhi, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and some pockets of Himachal Pradesh.

Earlier in April, intense heat waves were reported from Southern peninsular India and Eastern India. At many places, soaring temperatures broke records and caused severe water crisis. However, the situation comparatively eased in peninsular India in early May while North India continued to reel under the heatwave.

IMD data shows that there was a 45% increase in heatwave days in May. The normal heatwave days for May is 92, but it shot up to 133. Similarly, in April, the number of heatwave days were 66% above the normal range. (see table)

Against the normal three days of heatwave in each meteorological region in May, Gujarat experienced 12 days, Rajasthan (9-12 days), Delhi, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Telangana seven days each, Karnataka, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh six days each and Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Bengal five days each.

April had 118 days of heatwave against an average of 71 days. Instead of two days of normal heatwave, Odisha (18 days — 2 in the first half of the month and 16 in the second half) reported the highest of heatwave days in the past nine years. West Bengal had 16 such days, which was its highest in 15 years.

Heatwaves were also reported in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Interior Karnataka (10 days), Southern Karnataka (8 days), Tamil Nadu and Sikkim (7 days).

Odisha got the longest spell of heatwave in April 2024 from April 15-30 (16 days). Its previous highest was in April 2016 when it prevailed between April 9 and 30 (21 days).

A recent study shows that an average person on earth experienced 26 more days of abnormally high temperatures in the past year than would have been the case without human-induced climate change.

It said that in the last 12 months, some 6.3 billion people — roughly 80% of the global population — experienced at least 31 days of what is classed as extreme heat. The report was published by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, the World Weather Attribution scientific network and the non-profit research organisation Climate Central.

Even the World Health Organisation states that the number of people exposed to extreme heat is growing exponentially due to climate change in all the global regions. Heat-related mortality for people over 65 years of age increased by approximately 85% between 2000–2004 and 2017–2021.

According to the IMD’s latest Heat Index, the human body will experience above 600C in Eastern India, the Gangetic plains and the Eastern coasts up to Tamil Nadu. The Heat Index is a measure of how hot it really feels outside by taking into account humidity along with temperature.

Moreover, a new analysis by a Delhi-based environment think tank, the Centre for Science and Environment, shows that the heat stress is not just about rising temperature. It is a deadly combination of air temperature, land surface temperature and relative humidity that leads to thermal discomfort in cities and increases the disease burden.

No centralised record of heat related illness

Extreme heat can cause serious health issues and can be fatal to outdoor workers, the elderly and people with existing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, mental health, asthma, etc. The weather office has issued red alerts in many states to take precautions against heat-related illness.

There were reports of 50 school students fainting and at least 14 deaths in Bihar due to heat related illness. Besides, 19 people died in Odisha due to suspected heatstroke. In Delhi, paid work break from 12 noon to 3 pm has been made mandatory for outdoor workers.

These are some of the widely reported incidents. But the government does not collect centralised data on heat related disasters ostensibly to avoid public anxiety. “When required we ask the respective state authority to provide data on heat-related disasters to frame policy,” said a senior member of the National Disaster Management Authority. “The data is controlled and monitored at the Prime Minister’s Office, so it is not easily available to the public,” he added.

A recent study shows that in the past two decades, approximately half a million people died due to heat-related illness. Out of it, 45% were in Asia and 36% in Europe.

In 2021, Athens became the world’s first city to appoint a Heat officer, a formal step to recognise heat as a disaster that needs mitigation. Experts believe that India needs to recognise heat as a disaster and take concrete steps to reduce the disease burden.

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