Global warming has the potential to create a major domino effect across the planet, which could range from minor changes in certain ecosystems to the complete collapse of a few others. Either way, the fact that Earth’s increasing ‘fever’ will catastrophically touch each and every part of the planet cannot be ignored.
Now, a new study has projected a grim prospect, particularly for the South Asian region. The details sketched out by the research state that with a global 2°C rise, this region’s exposure to deadly heatwaves would become more frequent—in fact, it is expected to triple compared to the current exposure! Moreover, even if the mercury levels in the region are limited to 1.5°C, the impact of rising heat stress will only narrow down to half.
“The future looks bad for South Asia, but the worst can be avoided by containing warming to as low as possible,” said Moetasim Ashfaq, a computational climate scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“The need for adaptation over South Asia is today, not in the future. It’s not a choice anymore. Only half a degree increase from today is going to cause a widespread increase in these events.”
Heatwaves in India
The study shows that people dwelling in major crop-producing Indian states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, along with residents of Sindh in Pakistan are most likely to face the brunt of the increasing number of heatwaves. Moreover, urban centres located on coastal belts, such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad may also fall into the grip of heat stress.
Earlier studies had projected that heatwaves would become more lethal by the end of the century. However, the authors of this study assert that this has already started to occur in South Asia, as the year 2015 already witnessed some of the most severe heat episodes on record. It is regarded as the fifth deadliest heatwave in history, which killed nearly 3,500 people, out of which 2,300 deaths were reported from India alone.
A recent report from The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change highlighted that India recorded over 31,000 heat-related mortality incidents in 2018 alone among the 65-plus aged population. This ranks India second, after China, which witnessed about 62,000 deaths in the same year.
Impact of rising temperature
At present, the South Asian region, which also includes India, experiences periodic heatwaves, typically in the hot summer months between March to June. As per the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), a heatwave occurs when the daily maximum temperature crosses the average mark by 5°C or more consecutively for five days or more.
The team calculated how the heat stress will impact the demographics of the region if the temperatures spike by 1.5°C and 2°C. The results indicated that residents who live in the wet-bulb temperature of 32°C will endure conditions that make labour activities unsafe, while those residing in areas above 35°C will witness a severe impact on their survivability.
Wet-bulb temperature refers to the lowest temperature that can be reached under a certain ambient condition after evaporating all the water. At the wet-bulb temperature levels mentioned above, the human body loses the capability of regulating its temperature in order to keep it cool amid the surrounding heat.
Therefore, with a 2°C rise, the population at risk of unsafe labour temperatures will increase more than two-fold. But if the rise is restricted to 1.5°C, it will reduce the exposure to extensive heat stress by half—nevertheless, people will endure scorching temperatures.
This makes South Asian people—nearly one-quarter of the total world’s population—more vulnerable to deadly heatwaves. And if the temperatures continue to spike it can have a widespread impact on the livelihood of people in the region.
The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters earlier this month and can be accessed here.
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