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Which factors have converted The Indian Summer into a drastic heatwave situation

India is experiencing a severe heatwave, with temperatures soaring to record-breaking highs. Climate change, driven by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of these heat waves. The situation is dire, with cities like Delhi witnessing temperatures above 50°C, posing a significant threat to health, water supply, and the power grid. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that such extreme weather events will become more common and intense if global emissions are not significantly reduced. It is crucial for immediate and concerted efforts to be made in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and implementing adaptation strategies to protect vulnerable populations and infrastructure from the devastating impacts of climate change.

The summer of 2024 in India has been exceptionally hot due to a combination of climatic factors. One significant contributor is the strong El Niño conditions, which have led to higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon often correlates with global weather disruptions, including increased temperatures. Additionally, the weakening of the land-ocean temperature gradient due to global warming has been a factor, with each month setting new all-time heat records. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has noted that the actual maximum temperatures have reached alarming levels, defining a heatwave when temperatures exceed the normal by 4.5°C to 6.4°C. The intensity and frequency of heatwaves have been rising, with central and north-western India, as well as coastal Andhra Pradesh, being particularly affected. The IMD also predicted more heatwave days this year, with temperatures in several cities reaching critical commencement. These conditions have underscored the urgent need for climate action and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impact of such extreme weather events on the population and the environment.

The exceptionally hot summer of 2024 in India may be influenced due to various factors like climate change deforestation, urban heat distribution patterns and many others. Some of them are discussed below:

Climate Change: In India the intense heatwave, with temperatures soaring to record highs, this extreme weather event is a direct consequence of climate change, which is primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and further exacerbated by human activities. The increased frequency and severity of heatwaves across the globe, including in India, can be attributed to the rise in global average temperatures. In India, the heat has not only led to school closures but also posed significant health risks, with many cities experiencing temperatures well above 45ºC and nighttime temperatures remaining dangerously high. The Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi emphasises the urgent need for adaptation measures to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent such extreme weather conditions from becoming the new norm. The situation underscores the critical importance of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and highlights the vulnerability of densely populated urban areas to the compounded impacts of urbanisation and climate change. Long-term global warming trends contribute to higher average temperatures worldwide, including in India. Rising greenhouse gas emissions lead to increased heat trapping in the atmosphere, intensifying heatwaves.

Urban Heat Island Effect: The Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect has been a significant contributor to the unusually hot summer of 2024 in India. This phenomenon occurs when urban areas, which are densely packed with buildings and paved surfaces, absorb and retain more heat compared to rural areas, leading to higher temperatures. In the case of India, rapid urbanization has replaced natural landscapes with concrete and asphalt, exacerbating the UHI effect. The lack of green spaces and vegetation in cities, which can provide natural cooling, has further intensified the heat. This has serious implications for public health, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses and placing additional strain on energy resources due to the higher demand for cooling. Efforts to mitigate the UHI effect are crucial, including increasing urban greenery and implementing reflective building materials to reduce heat absorption. Urban areas, with their concentration of concrete, asphalt, and buildings, absorb and retain heat more than rural areas. This effect is exacerbated by rapid urbanization and insufficient green spaces.

An AI image tries to depict the heat island effect in cities
An AI image tries to depict the heat island effect in cities

Weather Patterns: The summer of 2024 in India has been marked by an intense heatwave, considered the country's hottest summer in 120 years. This extreme weather event has been attributed to a combination of factors, including fewer non-monsoon thundershowers and warm winds from neighbouring arid regions. The heatwave began during the Indian dry season, which typically lasts from March to July, with peak temperatures usually observed in April and May. However, this year, temperatures soared to unprecedented levels, with the capital New Delhi recording temperatures nearly reaching 53°C (127.2°F)  [IMD]. The heatwave has had a significant impact on the population, with over 219 reported deaths and more than 25,000 cases of heatstroke. Additionally, the intense heat has led to increased water consumption, exacerbating water scarcity issues and affecting the daily lives of millions. The situation underscores the need for robust measures to manage and mitigate the effects of such extreme weather patterns, which are likely to become more frequent and severe due to climate change. Natural climate variability, such as shifts in monsoon patterns or the absence of cooling monsoon rains, can lead to extended periods of heat. Changes in ocean temperatures, particularly in the Indian Ocean, can influence weather patterns over the subcontinent.

Deforestation and Land Use Changes : Deforestation and land use changes have a significant impact on regional climates, particularly in the context of the Indian subcontinent. The removal of forests affects the local albedo, the earth's surface reflectivity, which in turn influences the ground and air temperatures. Studies have shown that such changes can lead to an increase in temperature during the summer months. Additionally, deforestation disrupts the normal patterns of moisture advection and latent heat flux, which are crucial for precipitation during the monsoon season. This can result in decreased rainfall and increased occurrences of drought and heatwaves. The alteration of land-surface characteristics due to deforestation also affects the water and energy cycles, leading to abnormal anti-cyclonic circulation over certain regions, further exacerbating the heat experienced during the summer. These findings underscore the importance of sustainable land management and the need for climate change adaptation strategies to mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation on the regional climate, particularly in the face of rising summer temperatures in India. Loss of forests and changes in land use can alter local climate patterns, reducing natural cooling mechanisms like evapotranspiration and forest shade.

Air Pollution : Air pollution has a significant impact on climate patterns, contributing to the rise in temperatures during the summer months. In India, the summer of 2024 has been particularly hot, and research indicates that air pollution is one of the contributing factor. Pollutants such as particulate matter and greenhouse gases trap more heat in the atmosphere, leading to an increase in temperature. This phenomenon is exacerbated in urban areas where vehicular emissions, industrial activities, and other sources of pollution are concentrated. The Environmental Performance Index of 2024 highlighted India's challenges with air quality and emissions, ranking it 176th out of 180 countries. Additionally, the integration of air quality and climate policy is crucial for addressing these environmental challenges. Policies that focus on reducing emissions from power plants, improving industrial energy efficiency, and promoting electric vehicles can have co-benefits, helping to mitigate both air pollution and climate change. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) aims to reduce pollution in the most affected cities by 20%-30% by 2024, which could help alleviate some of the heat experienced during the summer months. High levels of air pollution, common in many Indian cities, can contribute to higher temperatures by trapping heat and reducing overall air quality.

Image shows the gases/smoke from factories that contribute to Air pollution
Image shows the gases/smoke from factories that contribute to Air pollution

Heatwave Dynamics : The intense heatwave dynamics in India during the summer of 2024 can be attributed to a combination of factors, primarily climate change, which has led to more frequent and severe heatwaves. The India Meteorological Department had predicted an unusually high number of heatwave days from April to June, with temperatures soaring above normal thresholds. This has been compounded by the urban heat island effect, where concrete and asphalt store heat during the day and release it at night, leading to higher temperatures in urban areas. Additionally, deforestation and loss of green cover have exacerbated the situation, as there are fewer trees to provide shade and release moisture into the air. The heatwaves have had a significant impact on health, agriculture, and water resources, highlighting the urgent need for robust heat action plans and climate adaptation strategies.

Specific atmospheric conditions, such as high-pressure systems and lack of cloud cover, can create conditions conducive to prolonged heatwaves.

Infrastructure and Adaptation : Rapid urbanization and infrastructure development have altered land surfaces, reducing green cover and increasing heat absorption in urban areas. This phenomenon, known as the "urban heat island effect," exacerbates the heat experienced during summer months. Moreover, adaptation measures, such as the construction of heat-resistant buildings and improved cooling systems, are essential to mitigate the impact of rising temperatures. However, these measures require significant investment and planning to be effective. The government's efforts in expanding the national highway network and enhancing urban amenities, as reported in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting's document on infrastructure development, are commendable but must be balanced with sustainable practices to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Additionally, the report 'Financing Adaptation in India' highlights the critical need for prioritizing climate adaptation and resilience, underscoring the urgency to address the funding gaps in adaptation investment at the state level. As India continues to make strides in infrastructure, such as the Mumbai Trans Harbor Link and the Navi Mumbai International Airport, it is imperative to integrate climate resilience into these projects to safeguard against future climate risks. Challenges in infrastructure and limited access to cooling systems or safe water exacerbate the impact of heatwaves on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or those in poverty.

Addressing these factors requires a combination of global efforts to mitigate climate change, local urban planning strategies, sustainable land management practices, and improvements in public health and emergency response systems to protect vulnerable populations during extreme heat events.

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