The month of March brought India its highest maximum temperatures in 122 years, April has been scorching, and May is forecast to be even worse for more than a billion people facing ferocious heat waves that have been hammering the subcontinent since early spring.
Temperatures soared above 42.8°C in several cities on Monday, and they are expected to rise further, leaping 5.5°C to 8.3°C above average for the rest of this week, the Washington Post reports, adding that the forecast is particularly worrying for those without any way to escape the heat.
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“The large majority of Indian households live in poverty and lack air conditioning, increasing the population’s vulnerability to heat,” reports the Post. “Older adults are especially at risk from high temperatures.”
North and western India, particularly along the borders with Pakistan and Nepal, may suffer the worst, with projected temperatures as high as 46°C.
Contributing to the intense and incessant heat is a heat dome which has been clamped down over the region since March, keeping skies punishingly clear of clouds and deflecting storm systems that might otherwise pass through.
A steady weakening of monsoon season is making things even worse, the Post writes, citing a 2020 report from the Indian Meteorological Department’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. “Ordinarily, temperatures begin to plateau and acutely decline late in the spring during the buildup of the summer monsoon,” which brings heavy downpours across much of the region, writes the Post. But according to the IMD report, “the overall decrease of seasonal summer monsoon rainfall during the last six to seven decades has led to an increased propensity for droughts over India.”
The signs of drought are obvious in many parts of the country, with Delhi receiving only 0.02 centimetres of rain since the beginning of March, when the average for March and April together is 2.8 centimetres. Nation-wide rainfall in March was 71% lower than the long-term average.
And with such drought comes further heat, as the drier air over dry land heats up more quickly, and onward the vicious cycle turns.
People in India’s cities will be particularly vulnerable to heat stress, reports the Post, with the urban heat island effect making more frequent elevated nighttime lows particularly dangerous to public health, especially for children and the elderly.
With temperatures in India already up by an average of 0.7°C between 1901 and 2018, the IMD report projected that summer heat waves will at least triple by 2100 under an extreme emissions scenario, while the frequency of unhealthily warm nights will jump 70%.