What happens in India does not stay in India. Why this deadly heat wave has a wide reach

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On December 29, 1972, mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz presented a lecture at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. title being: “Predictability: Does the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil trigger a tornado in Texas?”

Although Lorenz tried to detail the difficulty of weather forecasting, since then the so-called “butterfly effect” been used in films – especially jurassic park – and television to describe chaos theory, or how a small thing can influence something completely unrelated.

Although the flapping of a butterfly’s wings may not necessarily influence the weather thousands of miles away, in the face of our rapidly warming planet, there are many reminders of our interconnectedness.

Over the past week, stories have splashed across our computer and TV screens of the blistering heat wave that has gripped most of India, and for good reason.

India is no stranger to heat waves. Year after year, the country experiences days of intense heat ahead of its monsoon season which brings much-needed rains for crops.

But this spring was very different.

Temperatures have soared to nearly 50C across much of the country of more than 1.3 billion people.

“This heat wave is quite unusual. March was the hottest in 122 years, about the hottest year since we started recording temperatures,” said Aditi Mukherji, senior researcher at the Institute. Delhi Water Management International to CBC News in an email. “Heat waves are common in India, but never so early. Then heat waves are [normally] localized, but this time it is widespread almost everywhere [the country].”

Although it is not yet known exactly what factors played a role in this historic heat wave, scientists believe that it was affected by climate change.

“That’s what we expect from climate change,” said Raghu Murtugudde, a visiting scholar at the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center. “The thing to notice is if you look at the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, which has warmed up a lot since about 1990. And that wind blowing from that direction towards India is now much warmer.”

Loading dice

That’s not to say that there isn’t natural variability that plays a role. Currently, a La Niña event is underway. La Niña is part of a natural cycle called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, where cooler water persists in part of the Pacific Ocean (the opposite, El Niño, means there is hotter). This may affect weather conditions worldwide.

WATCH | El Niño and La Niña explained:

“La Niña is setting up a pressure pattern that is bringing the cold lane all the way to the Indian peninsula,” Murtugudde said. “We had a colder than normal winter, as we expect from La Niña. Now we have a much warmer than normal spring because this warm air is heading towards peninsular India.”

And then there’s the saying: what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

“The other thing that plays into all of this is that the Arctic has been much warmer than normal. So when that happens, we also get Arctic forces coming in from the southeast towards the Pakistan and India,” Murtugudde said.

“It’s a deadly combination of what we call natural variability; things like El Niño and La Niña and anthropogenic warming, global warming. So together they’re creating this heat wave, which is unprecedented. But that’s what we expect from climate change: it loads the dice.”

Cross-border impacts

It’s not just weather patterns and climate that are interconnected. Heat waves bring with them far-reaching effects, some of which have no borders.

The most obvious, of course, is heat-related deaths. Although there has been no official tally of deaths attributed to this heat wave, the last major heat wave, which occurred in 2015, is believed to have kill 2,500 people in India and another 1,100 in Pakistan. However, this number may be higher, as there have been concerns about how India reports heat-related deaths.

People sleep on the Yamuna River bed under a bridge on a hot day in New Delhi on Sunday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

There is also serious damage to India agriculture already in difficulty sector.

“Wheat crops in the main wheat-growing belts have been badly affected. Pre-monsoon showers are providing much-needed moisture to crops. This was lacking, and the additional high heat made the wheat harvest particularly sensitive,” Mukherji said.

There were also major electricity problems, with power cuts. Apart from people not being able to cool themselves, the shortages affect farmers who need this electricity to irrigate their crops with electric tube wells and pumps, Mukherji said.

“The implications of food scarcity are unclear, as India generally has large buffer stocks of food. If the monsoons are also disrupted, and rice crops are subsequently affected (either by droughts or floods), we can expect food prices to rise”. she wrote.

A man uses his mobile phone as he sits amid outdoor units of air conditioners at the back of a commercial building in New Delhi on April 30. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

“However, so far monsoons are expected to be normal. There is talk of India restricting wheat exports. India is the world’s eighth largest wheat exporter. The outlook for wheat supply on the international market looks bleak.”

And with two major wheat exporters hurting, it is likely to be felt around the world.

More soon

What’s worse is that heat waves have already occurred more frequently than in pre-industrial times and are expected to increase.

In the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reportClimate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, the panel found that “more intense heat waves of longer duration and occurring at higher frequency are projected with medium confidence over India and Pakistan”.

At the city level, the impacts become more significant.

With a warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, Kolkata, India will on average experience heat equivalent to the record-breaking heat waves of 2015 every year, while Karachi, Pakistan would see it about once every the 3.6-year-olds, the panel wrote.

With a warming of 2°C, “both regions could expect such heat every year”.

The hotter it is in India, the more electricity people use to cool down. This, in turn, increases the demand for electricity in a country that depends mainly on coal, one of the worst contributors to climate change. And this in turn is exacerbating climate change, not just in India, but across the world. It is a vicious circle that is unsustainable, especially for the poor.

“When India worries about mitigating renewable energy etc., it also has to worry about coping with the poor to cope with this day-to-day, because all they have to think about is the next meal. “said Murtugudde.

“Not the next century or 10 years later. Climate change is here. The future is here.”

Flap, flap, flap the butterfly’s wings.