Saturday 30 May 2015

Death toll from Indian heat wave exceeds 2000.

The death toll from the heat wave that has hit India in May 2015 passed the 2000 mark on Friday 29 May 2015, with the majority of the casualties recorded in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana States, and loss of life attributed directly to the heat also recorded in Odisha, West Bengal, Gujarat, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Temperatures began to soar on Thursday 21 May, when a temperature of 45.4°C was recorded in Jharsuguda in Odisha State and the first twelve deaths associated with the heat wave were recorded. On the same day a temperature of 42.6°C was recorded in Delhi, where several instances of roads asphalt roads melting were also observed and a temperature of 46°C was recorded in Hyderbad.

Woman carrying water in southern India. AAP.

On Saturday 23 May a temperature of 47°C was recorded in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, while 44.5°C was recorded in Delhi, 36°C in Kolkata and 43.6°C in Hyderbad, and a total of 246 heat-related deaths were recorded in Andhra Pradesh and 23 in Odisha. On 24 May a temperature of 48°C was recorded at Khammam in Telangana State.

People sleeping on the roofs of houses in New Delhi on 29 May to escape heat trapped within the buildings. Tsering Topgyal/AP.

High temperatures are normal in India, and Indian Summer heat waves that claim many lives have been recorded on previous years. Prior to 2015 the highest number of casualties were recorded in 1997, when 1677 heat-related deaths were recorded, and the number of such deaths passed 1200 in 2012 and 2013. However the 2015 heat wave is exceptional not just in the number of deaths recorded but in how early in the year it has struck; the Indian Summer typically lasts from March to July, with temperatures climbing steadily across this period, and relief arriving with the onset of the Monsoon Season. The record-breaking temperatures and high number of casualties recorded in May is alarming as the temperature could potentially continue to rise for another two months, leading to many further casualties and severely stretching the Indian infrastructure, which is already suffering water shortages in many places, as well as power outages caused by a sharp rise in demand for air conditioning.

Distorted road makings caused by melting of an asphalt road in New Delhi. Harish Tyagi/EPA.

Heat stroke typically occurs when the human body is heated to over 40°C; such temperatures the body rapidly becomes too dehydrated to allow further sweating and the body looses its ability to thermoregulate, leading to disorientation and occasionally seizures, followed by  unconsciousness and eventual death. The best way to avoid this is to remain indoors during the hottest parts of the day, and to cover up with loose-fitting lightweight clothing and a hat when forced to venture outside. The worst affected people in all areas affected by the Indian heat wave have been the poorest members of society, particularly in urban areas where a large number of homeless people typically sleep in the open and have no access to shelter from the heat, and poor workers who cannot afford to take time off from jobs which require hard physical exertion in the direct sun.

A man being treated for heat stroke in an Indian hospital. EPA.

The severity of the 2015 Indian heat wave appears to be related to a strong El Niño affect recorded over the southern Pacific Ocean this year. The El Niño is the warm phase of a long-term climatic oscillation affecting the southern Pacific, which can influence the climate around the world. The onset of El Niño conditions is marked by a sharp rise in temperature and pressure over the southern Indian Ocean, which then moves eastward over the southern Pacific. This pulls rainfall with it, leading to higher rainfall over the Pacific and lower rainfall over (amongst other places) India. This reduced rainfall during the already hot and dry Indian Summer leads to soaring temperatures, particularly over the eastern part of the country. Worryingly climatic predictions for the next century suggest that global warming could lead to more frequent and severe El Niño conditions, making such Indian heat waves a common occurrence.

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