Climate Change Will Make Heat Like India’s 100 Times More Likely, Study Finds

UK researchers modeled heat under likely emissions scenarios.
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Image: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The climate crisis is making heat waves like the one currently gripping India and Pakistan more than 100 times more likely to occur than they would be otherwise, a new study by the U.K. government has found. 

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A researcher at the Met Office, the U.K.’s national meteorological service, studied realtime data on the heat wave in India and Pakistan that has broken records across a number of states, which have faced temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. They used 14 models to simulate climate scenarios and assess the probability that the current heatwave exceeds the last record-breaking one in April and May of 2010, when temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius and hundreds of people died.  

Under natural conditions, breaking the record set in 2010 should only happen once every 300 years, the paper found. But, with climate change, this eventuality has become far more common: Record-breaking temperatures are now happening about every three years, and under an emissions scenario in which carbon dioxide levels hover around where they are currently, are likely to happen “almost every year by the end of the century.” 

“Spells of heat have always been a feature of the region’s pre-monsoon climate during April and May. However, our study shows that climate change is driving the heat intensity,” Dr. Nikos Christidis, author of the study said in a press release. “By the end of the century, increasing climate change is likely to drive temperatures of these values on average every year.”

Prior to the region’s monsoon season, which runs from June to September each year, April and May have seen heat engulf northern India. Temperatures hit 42.C degrees celsius in parts of the capital city of Delhi, and Pakistan saw temperatures it hasn’t seen since 1961

In the U.S., heat waves are the deadliest form of natural disaster, and South Asia’s current one also offers a cautionary tale about the public health threat that the climate crisis poses. It’s left millions of people vulnerable to heat-related health impacts, with infants, the elderly, rural agricultural communities, people with chronic diseases, and low-income city-dwellers notably at-risk.

“With temperatures exceeding 50.0°C in recent days, it is clear the current heatwave is an extreme weather event affecting communities and livelihoods,” Professor Peter Stott, science fellow in climate attribution at the Met Office said in a press release.

Christidis’ study is in keeping with existing literature on the relationship between heat waves and climate change. Stott’s own past research has connected the severity of other heat waves, like one in continental Europe in the early 2000s, to human-caused climate change; another recent paper in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Changenotes that climate change has worsened the properties of heat waves “many times faster than any other type of extreme weather.”