PARIS/NEW, DELHI - ‘Once-a-century’ rains that have killed more than 1,200 people across South Asia and displaced 1.3 million people are in line with predictions say climate scientists, who warn that worse is to come if global warming continues unabated.
The monsoon rains upon which farmers in the Indian state of Kerala depend for their food and livelihoods dumped two-and-a-half times the normal amount of water across the state last week, according to Indian meteorologists, causing its worst floods in nearly 100 years.
Kerala has reported 445 deaths with more bodies discovered each day. The floods, which have devastated the southern state and tourist hot spot, have forced more than a million people to seek shelter in temporary relief camps.
All 35 of the state’s major reservoirs were brimming with rain water by August 10, forcing local authorities to open the sluice gates on the Idukki Dam for the first time in 26 years.
It is difficult to attribute any single extreme weather event — such as the Kerala flooding — to climate change, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pashan, near Mumbai.
At the same time, “our recent research shows a three-fold increase in widespread extreme rains during 1950-2017, leading to large-scale flooding,” he said.
Over the same period, flooding across India caused by heavy monsoon rainfall claimed 69,000 lives and left 17 million people without homes, according to a study he co-authored that was published last year in Nature Communications.
According to Kira Vinke, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, “these floods that we are seeing in Kerala right now are basically in line with climate projections.”
“If we continue with current levels of emissions — which is not unlikely — we will have unmanageable risks,” she said.
Kerala accounted for nearly half of the more than 1,000 deaths reported across India, with over 160 killed in neighboring Karnataka state, more than 200 fatalities in Uttar Pradesh state, and 195 in West Bengal, according to official figures.
The monsoon also battered Nepal, with 87 people killed since June, according to the home ministry, including a woman and eight children swept away by a landslide in a remote village. In Bangladesh, floods and landslides killed at least 29 people, according to official figures.
The monsoon, which lasts from June to September, causes widespread death and destruction across South Asia each year. In Sri Lanka, where authorities organized the early evacuation of 750,000 people in threatened areas this year, the death toll from monsoon floods fell to 24 from 224 killed in May and June last year, official figures showed. In the deadliest monsoon-induced disaster in recent years in South Asia, flooding and landslides killed around 5,800 people in India’s northern Uttarakhand state in June 2013.
The weather patterns behind these destructive downpours are well understood, even if the fingerprint of global warming is still hard to distinguish from what scientists call “natural variability.”
Rapid warming in the Arabian Sea and nearby landmass causes monsoon winds to fluctuate and intensify for short spans of three-to-four days, explained Koll.
During those periods, moisture from the Arabian Sea is dumped inland.
“Over the last decade, due to climate change, the overheating of landmass leads to the intensification of monsoon rainfalls in central and southern India,” said monsoon expert Elena Surovyatkina, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a senior scientist at PIK.
The changes observed so far have occurred after an increase in Earth’s average surface temperature of only one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
On current trends, India’s average annual temperatures are set to rise 1.5 C to 3 C compared to that benchmark by mid-century, according to a World Bank report entitled “South Asia’s Hotspots.”
“If no corrective measures are taken, changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures will cost India 2.8 percent of its GDP and will drag down living standards of half its population by 2050,” the World Bank said in a statement.
The 196-nation Paris climate treaty calls for capping global warming at “well below” 2 C (3.6 F), and 1.5 C if possible.
But voluntary national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if respected, would still see temperatures rise at least 3 C.
Flooding is not the only problem India’s burgeoning — and highly vulnerable — population will face as a consequence of global warming.
“What we will see with climate change in India is that the wet season is going to be wetter and the dry season drier,” said Vinki.
“Already we are observing that the monsoon is becoming harder to predict with traditional methods.”
If man-made carbon emissions continue unabated, some regions in northeast India could literally become unlivable by the end of the century due to a deadly combination of heat and humidity during heat waves, recent research has projected.
Indeed, large swathes of south Asia, including the Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin, could approach the threshold for survivability outdoors.
Coastal cities, meanwhile, are especially vulnerable to sea level rise, driven by melting ice sheets and expanding ocean water, on the one hand, and subsidence due to over-development and the depletion of water tables, on the other.