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The familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place: searing temperatures, hotter air holding more moisture, extreme weather getting wilder, melting glaciers, people living in harm’s way, and poverty. They combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create unrelenting rain and deadly flooding.
The flooding has all the hallmarks of a catastrophe juiced by climate change, but it is too early to formally assign blame to global warming, several scientists told The Associated Press. It occurred in a country that did little to cause the warming, but keeps getting hit, just like the relentless rain.
“This year Pakistan has received the highest rainfall in at least three decades. So far this year the rain is running at more than 780% above average levels,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council.
“Extreme weather patterns are turning more frequent in the region and Pakistan is not an exception.”
Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said “it’s been a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.”
News coverage over the last few days has reported one-third of the country under water, more than 1,000 dead since mid-June, millions affected by the “horrors of climate change”, and the country as a whole bracing for at least US$10 billion in costs. In nearby Afghanistan last week, meanwhile, at least 20 died and hundreds of homes were damaged in flash floods.
“There was a super flood in 2010, but this is the worst ever in the history of Pakistan,” Shabnam Baloch, the country director for Pakistan at the International Rescue Committee, told Vox. “The type of catastrophe we are seeing at the moment is just indescribable. I don’t even have the right words to put it in a way that people can visualize it.”
“Pakistan has faced a series of crises this year: economic, political, now, a natural disaster,” added Brookings Institution foreign policy researcher Madiha Afzal. “Running underneath all of this has been the political crisis.”
Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climate scientist at the International Water Management Institute, told AP. Its rain, heat, and melting glaciers are all climate change factors scientists have warned repeatedly about.
While scientists point out these classic climate change fingerprints, they have not yet finished intricate calculations that compare what’s happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. That study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine how much climate change is a factor, if at all.
The “recent flood in Pakistan is actually an outcome of the climate catastrophe .. that was looming very large,” said Anjal Prakash, a research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. “The kind of incessant rainfall that has happened… has been unprecedented.”
Pakistan is used to monsoons and downpours, but “we do expect them spread out, usually over three months or two months,” said the country’s climate minister Rehman.
There are usually breaks, she said, and not as much rain—37.5 centimetres (14.8 inches) now fall in one day, nearly three times higher than the national average for the past three decades. “Neither is it so prolonged,” Rehman added. “It’s been eight weeks and we are told we might see another downpour in September.”
“Clearly, it’s being juiced by climate change,” said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
There’s been a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas like Baluchistan and Sindh, leading to extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams have been breached.
The heat has been as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan consistently saw temperatures above 45°F/113°F. Scorching temperatures higher than 50°C/122°F were recorded in places like Jacobabad and Dadu.
Warmer air holds more moisture—about 7% more per degree Celsius—and that eventually comes down, in this case in torrents.
Across the world “intense rain storms are getting more intense,” said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. And he said mountains, like those in Pakistan, help wring extra moisture out as the clouds pass.
Instead of just swollen rivers flooding from extra rain, Pakistan is hit with another source of flash flooding: The extreme heat accelerates the long-term glacier melting, then water speeds down from the Himalayas to Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called glacial lake outburst floods.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and this affects us,” climate minister Rehman said. “Instead of keeping their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature, we are seeing them melt.”
Not all of the problem is climate change.
Pakistan saw similar flooding and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. But the government didn’t implement plans to prevent future flooding by preventing construction and homes in flood prone areas and river beds, said Suleri of the country’s Climate Change Council.
The disaster is hitting a poor country that has contributed relatively little to the world’s climate problem, scientists and officials said. Since 1959, Pakistan has emitted about 0.4% of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% by the United States and 16.4% by China.
“Those countries have developed or gotten rich on the back of fossil fuels, which are the problem really,” Rehman said. “They’re going to have to make a critical decision that the world is coming to a tipping point. We certainly have already reached that point because of our geographical location.”
This Associated Press story was republished by The Canadian Press on August 29, 2022.