Explained: How the sudden increase in heatwaves is affecting India

India is breaking records again, but these new highs are no reason to celebrate! People living in India's northern and central regions are experiencing severe heat waves. The temperature in Delhi crossed 45 degrees celsius, while UP’s Banda district registered a record high temperature of 49 degrees celsius. Although, high temperatures are typical in April and May, this year’s temperatures are unprecedented. India is witnessing its hottest summer in 122 years. Climate experts are pointing towards compound events as the major reason behind the increased frequency of heatwaves in the past few years. A compound event is one where two or more weather events which may not be necessarily dangerous occur together to create severe impacts. The heatwaves result from the compounding effect of global warming, weather pattern changes and existing weather cycles. An IPCC report released in August 2021 warned India might experience more frequent heatwaves. This was confirmed by a recent report by NASA which observed urban ‘heat islands’ in the Delhi NCR region. Although concrete is considered a good material for construction, it is notoriously known for absorbing and reflecting large amounts of heat. These concrete structures create heat islands that aggravate the impact of heatwaves where even the nights seem to offer no relief to the common people. While Delhi and its neighbouring areas recorded night time temperatures of 35 degrees celsius, the rural fields cooled off to 15 degrees celsius. The major differentiating factor was the lack of green spaces in urban areas.

Heatwaves are a classification used by the metrological department when the temperature increases beyond normal levels. If the temperature increases beyond 40 degrees celsius in the plains, 37 degrees celsius for coastal regions and 30 degrees celsius in the hilly region, it is classified as a heatwave. Suppose the average temperature in the plains increases by more than 6.4 degrees or the maximum temperature crosses 45 degrees for more than 2 days consecutively. In that case, it is considered to be a severe heatwave.

The La Nina phenomenon plays the biggest role in the compounding effect that leads to heat waves. The warm water from the South America travels towards eastern Asia. The trade winds carry warm winds and increase the temperature of Asia. This phenomenon is called La Nina. While the Indian sub-continent gets baked in the sun, countries like Argentina are experiencing record levels of snowfall. La Nina causes something called known as the Heat Dome Effect. Winds that flow into India during summers are called Sub-Tropical jet streams. When these jet streams are met with pressure differences, it gives the wind a wave-like structure. The wind blows at a higher altitude and creates a high-pressure environment in the top layers of the atmosphere. The hot air that rises from the ground is trapped in this dome and circulates within it creating a pressure cooker like environment. This recirculation creates strong warm winds, which is popularly known as Loo.

At least 25 people have died in Maharashtra since the onset of heatwaves in March this year. The numbers are higher in dry states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. Not only humans but animals and birds are suffering alike. In Gujarat, thousands of migratory birds are dropping from the sky due to dehydration and exhaustion.

Further, the electricity demand has surged in the summer months leading to load shedding and power cuts all across northern India. In a panic situation, the government is trying everything to restock the coal reserves of India. Coal India has been asked to cooperate with private companies to expedite the mining process; passenger trains are being cancelled to give room to freight trains transporting coal, and Power generating companies have been asked to import coal. According to a report by Reuters, India is expected to import as much coal in the next 6 months than it did annually in the last six years. 

Despite all the effort, the situation remains gloomy. The heatwaves have once again exposed the stark inequality prevailing in our society. While people belonging to the upper economic strata can afford air conditioners, coolers, and high electricity bills, people with low incomes suffer the most. Although the government has implemented heat action plans in high-risk areas, these people get little to no relief.

The heatwaves have a severe impact on Indian economy too. A major example of the effects of heatwaves is the banning of wheat exports. India is one of the largest exporters of wheat globally, but the frequent heatwaves have decreased the crop yield by 50%. Hence, the government had to ban exports to ensure India doesn't suffer from a wheat shortage. As the sun scorches the earth, it reduces the productive hours of the workforce in India. An agricultural worker or a daily wage labourer has to reduce their working hours due to extreme heat; this itself has a compounding effect on the economy in the form of inflation. The government has to focus on long term solutions as the frequency and temperatures of heatwaves are both expected to increase in the future.

Written By:

Jyotirmoy Gupta

Jyotirmoy Gupta is an engineer who later discovered his passion in photography and writing. His interests range from cinema and art history to sustainability and economics. He has worked with various newspapers as a photojournalist and video creator. He also loves writing short stories. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur.

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