High February temperatures have India already bracing for more heat waves

Last year, Indian meteorologists sounded the first heat wave alert of the year in March, foreshadowing a summer that arrived unusually early — and brought some of the most extreme temperatures in India’s recorded history.

This year, they are sounding the alarm even earlier.

The India Meteorological Department issued the first heat wave alert of the year on Sunday, warning that parts of India’s western region would reach 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37C). Meanwhile, other parts of India are recording temperatures that are usually seen in mid-March and at least 40 degrees above normal.

The abnormal temperatures are worrying experts who say India’s spring season — crucial for wheat production — is shrinking dangerously.

“It’s not even March yet and it’s already looking like a replay of last year, where spring was missing. The pace of change is alarming,” said Aditya Valiathan Pillai, an associate fellow at the Center for Policy Research focusing on heat waves.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, one of the hottest places in the country, last week was the warmest for this time in 70 years.

In some Himalayan towns, a lack of moisture in the winds reduced the amount of winter rain and snow, leading to record-breaking temperatures this week. Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, said that a downward movement of air as well as a particular wind pattern over Gujarat, known as an anticyclonic circulation, have combined to create the warm weather — a repeat of last year.

The temperature increases in wheat-producing states are particularly concerning, given that last year’s heat brought wheat production down by roughly 10 percent, or almost 11 million metric tons. India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, ended up banning exports of the grain furthering the global wheat supply crisis from the Ukraine-Russia war.

“Last year highlighted just how much these heat waves are about economywide consequences, moving the conversation beyond only morbidity and mortality,” said Pillai, the researcher.

Anup Kumar Srivastava, a consultant with the National Disaster Management Authority, said this year has already seen not just issues with wheat production, but also with chickpeas and mustard seeds — crucial Indian crops. Moreover, a coal shortage last year led to a fuel crisis in India’s thermal power plants, as electricity demand for air conditioners and fans shot up alongside a recovering post-pandemic economy.

“This country usually sees heat waves between April 1 and June 30,” Srivastava said. “But we are already seeing electricity demand up and labor productivity is already decreasing. We will see more illnesses from moving straight from winter to summer.”

Last year saw the most persistent, widespread and severe heat in India’s recorded history — a once in a hundred year event. But unlike last year, scientists predict a high likelihood that El Nino, the warming of the Pacific Ocean, will further increase the severity of India’s weather this year. The past few years have witnessed the opposite effect of La Nina, the cooling of those waters.

The National Disaster Management Authority met last week with its state counterparts to discuss how to improve their over 100 local-level heat action plans, a set of instructions for preparation and response to heat waves.

Dileep Mavalankar, the director of the Indian Institute of Public Health in Gujarat who was instrumental in some of India’s first heat action plans, believes that the preparation phases of the plans need to be triggered much earlier.

“We are feeling it today [in Gujarat],” he said. “Every year seems to be moving these temperatures earlier by a month or so.”

Furthermore, Mavalankar said, states need to compare mortality numbers to previous years to ascertain heat-related deaths, a data set that is underdeveloped in the country.

“Heat wave mortality is very subtle,” but it exists, he said. Scientists say that health can be heavily affected without the spring transition from winter to summer.

“Five years ago, you’d never have thought something like this could happen in consecutive years,” Pillai said. “Climate change keeps shifting the boundaries, severities and timelines.”

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