Climate crisis made May heatwaves 1.5C hotter in India, study says

Climate crisis made May heatwaves 1.5C hotter in India, study says

The unprecedented heatwaves that scorched northern and central India in May were made 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter by the climate crisis, a new scientific assessment has found.

In the last week of May, India experienced a spell of severe heatwaves, with 37 cities recording temperatures above 45C, prompting warnings of heatstroke. The capital Delhi saw a record temperature of 49.1C.

The heatwaves led to hundreds of deaths, including one voter and several workers conducting the mammoth national election, which ended after six weeks on 1 June.

The heatwaves were nearly 1.5C warmer than the hottest heatwaves the country had seen previously despite occurring later in the typical summer season, according to a report published by ClimaMeter, a research project funded by the European Union and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, or CNRS.

The study found that the heatwaves were “a largely unique event whose characteristics can mostly be ascribed to human driven climate change”.

This May was the hottest ever on record globally, completing an entire year of record-breaking extreme heat for the planet.

An increase of 1.5C in average temperature has serious implications for public health in a country where summers are already scorching.

Higher temperatures elevate the risk of heat exhaustion, heatstroke and other illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children and those with underlying conditions.

The new study compared weather conditions in 2001–2023 to patterns in 1979–2001 to gauge the impact of the climate crisis.

“ClimaMeter’s findings underscore that heatwaves in India are reaching unbearable temperature thresholds because of fossil fuels burning,” Davide Faranda of CNRS said.

“There are no technological solutions for adapting Indian metropoles for temperatures approaching 50C. We should all act now to reduce CO2 emissions and avoid exceeding vital temperature thresholds in large areas of the subtropics.”

In addition to health risks, this season’s heatwaves placed an immense burden on infrastructure. Delhi’s power demand, for one, soared to a record high as people turned to air conditioning, coolers and fans to beat the heat.

Half of India’s population, however, works outdoors and activists said the death toll was significantly higher than reported.

“There have been over 200 deaths in the second half of summer,” Sunil Kumar Aledia, an activist working with the homeless in Delhi, told The Independent.

The government is yet to confirm any heatstroke deaths.

Acute water shortage also became a pressing issue in Delhi, with authorities warning against wastage and imposing fines.

Delhi’s water minister said 200 teams would crack down on people washing cars with hose pipes and letting tanks overflow.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of India ordered the northern state of Himachal Pradesh to supply water to Delhi.

The agricultural sector also felt the brunt of the heatwaves. Higher temperatures negatively affect crop yields, reduce soil moisture and lead to drought conditions, potentially causing food shortages. Livestock are similarly vulnerable to heat stress, which can decrease productivity and increase mortality rates.