Heatwaves Crush the Indian Spring
India is a tropical country, where summer temperatures are between 35-45 degrees Celsius, depending on the region. While heatwaves are common in India, especially in May and June, summer began early this year with high temperatures from March itself - average maximum temperatures in the month were the highest in 122 years.
These prolonged and frequent heatwaves affected major parts of the country during April, taking the maximum temperatures at many places including west Rajasthan, east Uttar Pradesh, west Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra to over 45 degrees Celsius. 11 meteorological stations in the country – across Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh,
Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka and Lakshadweep – surpassed their existing temperature records for April. Other heat wave affected states and union territories include Delhi, Gujarat, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh.
Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using GEOS-5 data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC
Southern parts of West Bengal have faced heat waves for the first time in decades. April usually brings in the Nor’wester showers in the Eastern parts of India, however, this year the rains were shockingly absent. Delhi is facing its second heat wave already, with temperatures crossing 45 degrees Celsius.
The current heatwaves are due to local atmospheric factors. The major one were weak western disturbances - storms originating in the Mediterranean region - which meant little pre-monsoon rainfall in north-western and central India. Another factor were Anticyclones - an area of high atmospheric pressure where the air sinks - also led to hot, dry weather over parts of western India in March.
In the northern regions of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, mountain snow has been rapidly melting. Additionally, more than 300 large wildfires were burning around the country on April 27, according to the Forest Survey of India.
The effects are visible. Unexpected temperature spikes have affected the country’s wheat harvest, a development that could potentially have global consequences given supply disruptions due to the Ukraine war. Punjab, known as the bread-basket of India, suffered major losses in the yield because of the unprecedented heat.
Tea producers are worried about irregular rains and higher temperatures, especially at night, that have severely challenged the delicate crop in recent years, threatening the entire industry.
Death of livestock, deteriorated crop quality, increased risk of equipment fire due to overheating, insufficiency of water and irrigation requirements, and loss of crop have had a negative impact on livelihood and therefore, the prices of staples have shot up. Safe drinking water is also a major concern.
The heat has also triggered a huge demand for power, leading to outages in many states and fears of a massive shortage of coal. Demand for electricity has jumped almost by 40% this year, as people run fans and AC units at home and industrial production picked up after COVID. Railways cancelled dozens of passenger trains in order to rush coal shipments to power plants trying to avoid blackouts.
The effects of the heat wave include heat-related illnesses, poor air quality, little rainfall, and reduced crop yields. For the country’s health and climate experts trying to plan for global warming, the “wet bulb” temperature is the danger they fear most. This deadly combination of heat and humidity, which prevents a human body from cooling itself by sweating, is a huge looming threat for South Asia’s wet season. Heatwaves can have serious health consequences. If temperatures are high even at night, the body doesn't get a chance to recuperate, increasing the possibility of illnesses and higher medical bills. Spells of blistering heat such as this are becoming a regular feature of South Asia’s weather, rather than a once-in-a-decade-or-more crisis.