The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate change has made India’s relentless heat 100 times more likely

In northwest India and Pakistan, a U.K. analysis finds heat that used to occur every 300 years may now happen about every three

A woman uses an umbrella Sunday during a hot afternoon in New Delhi. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

The punishing heat that has scorched northwest India and Pakistan for weeks was probably made 100 times more likely by human-caused climate change, according to a new analysis published Wednesday by Britain’s Met Office.

The enduring heat, which began in March, has altered life for millions in the region, placing a strain on outdoor workers, shortening the school calendar and cutting crop yields.

The Met Office analysis examined how climate change was increasing the risk of such heat, using the record-setting event in April and May of 2010 — which 2022 is set to surpass — as a benchmark.

In the absence of climate change, an event like the 2010 heat wave would be expected only every 300 years, the analysis found. But factoring in the effects of increasing heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuel, the researchers now expect record-breaking temperatures about every three years.

“Given the extremes we have seen in recent weeks, one might expect that the previous record of 2010 will be broken this year and we find that indeed human influence would make this event about 100 times more likely,” Nikos Christidis, the lead researcher of the study, wrote in an email.

India tries to adapt to extreme heat but is paying a heavy price

This spring’s blistering temperatures have set numerous records in the region. India endured its highest March temperatures in 122 years of records. It was then the hottest April on record in Pakistan and northwest and central India.

Temperatures are running well above average in May as well. On Sunday, New Delhi hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.7 Celsius), just shy of its monthly record. The city of Jacobabad in Pakistan hit 123.8 degrees (51 Celsius) on Sunday and 122 degrees (50 Celsius) on Saturday.

As record-setting heat blasts Pakistan, a glacial lake floods village

Outdoor workers, who make up a large part of India’s workforce, are reeling.

For years, 31-year-old Chandra Mohan, a construction laborer in the city of Gurgaon, near Delhi, has done backbreaking work outdoors. But the work has recently felt intolerable.

“I used to work seven days a week. Now, I can barely manage five days,” Mohan said.

The heat wave has brought misery beyond the strain of physical exertion for workers like Mohan. It has meant a loss of income — less work is available and possible. It has meant higher spending — to buy cold water and drinks at work. It has meant nightly power cuts making it hard to rest at night.

“I don’t know how we will survive the coming days,” he said.

Another blast of heat is forecast for Thursday and Friday, focused in northern India and Pakistan. Temperatures could once again near 122 degrees (50 Celsius) in interior Pakistan, while much of northern India could see maximum temperatures of at least 108 degrees (42 Celsius).

For bike-taxi driver Shiv Kumar, 25, the heat has brought illness. His eyes sting when sweat runs down into them from wearing a helmet. His head is itchy at the end of each day.

“My clothes are soaked in sweat from driving all day,” Kumar said. “Now, I’ve got rashes all over.”

Kumar, a resident of Noida, outside Delhi, started working as a bike-taxi driver two months ago for better pay. Now, he may be back on the job market soon.

“I have to start looking for other jobs,” he said. “I didn’t realize this work would be so hard.”

Vimal Mishra, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, said the heat waves of the past two months are unprecedented in the past century or more for their early onset, persistence and wide-reaching effects.

As the heat extends into May amid ongoing drought, Mishra said, some areas could encounter shortages of drinking water. “If the monsoon is delayed or doesn’t come or arrives in June, then this period could be even longer,” he said.

India’s unusually long heat spell has occurred as researchers have documented an increase in the number of hot and humid days in recent decades.

“India has experienced among the fastest increases in urban extreme heat exposure worldwide,” Cascade Tuholske, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, wrote in an email. “Part of the increase in exposure is due to increased urban populations, but the rate of the increase in dangerous hot-humid days for many major Indian cities is alarming.”

Exposure to extreme urban heat has tripled worldwide since the 1980s, study finds

The Met Office analysis found that temperatures in the region could be as hot as the record-setting 2010 event practically every year by the end of the century unless emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are curbed.

Mishra, who was not involved in the analysis, said that scenario is “certainly plausible” if countries fail to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2 Celsius) above preindustrial levels. But even with lower greenhouse gas emissions, he said, much of the country will still have to cope with more-intense heat waves.

“It’s not like if we just restrict 1.5 or 2 degrees [of warming], we will be in a much better position,” said Mishra, who found that heat waves will probably increase sixfold under 2 degrees Celsius of warming. “Even half a degree of additional warming or one degree of additional warming in future could again pose a tremendous risk in terms of heat wave occurrence in India very significantly.”

India is one of several recent victims of extreme events worsened by human-caused climate change.

In April, South Africa experienced its deadliest storm on record. Torrential rains over two days in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces led to intense flooding and landslides, killing more than 400 people. Researchers with the World Wide Attribution project, which analyzes how human-caused climate change is affecting the probability of extreme weather events, found that global warming made the deluge twice as likely and intensified it by 4 to 8 percent.

Such extreme events are expected to increase as our planet continues to warm. A report released Wednesday by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said four key climate-change indicators set records in 2021: greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification.

The WMO also noted that the past seven years have been the warmest on record, while saying it’s “very likely” that Earth will set a new global temperature record at least once in the next five years. These records are “yet another clear sign that human activities are causing planetary scale changes on land, in the ocean, and in the atmosphere,” the report said.

Patel reported from Washington, and Masih from New Delhi.