Pakistan’s deadly floods have global warming characteristics: an explainer

The familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place: scorching temperatures, warmer air containing more moisture, extreme weather turning wilder, melting glaciers, people living in danger and poverty. They have combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create relentless rains and deadly floods.

The flooding has all the hallmarks of a climate change disaster, but it’s too early to officially blame global warming, several scientists told The Associated Press. It happened in a country that has done little to cause warming, but continues to be affected, as is the incessant rain.

This year, Pakistan received the highest rainfall in at least three decades. Rainfall so far this year is more than 780% above average, said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent in the region and Pakistan is no exception.

Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said it was a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

Pakistan is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change, said Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climatologist at the International Water Management Institute. Its rains, heat and melting glaciers are all factors of climate change that scientists have repeatedly been warned about.

While scientists point to these classic fingerprints of climate change, they have yet to complete the complex calculations that compare what happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. This study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine to what extent climate change is a factor, if at all.

The recent flooding in Pakistan is actually the result of the climatic catastrophe … which was shaping up to be very large, said Anjal Prakash, research director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy in India. The kind of incessant rain that has happened…has been unprecedented.”

Pakistan is used to monsoons and downpours, but we expect them to spread out, usually over three or two months, said the country’s climate minister, Rehman.

There are usually breaks, she said, and less rain — 37.5 centimeters (14.8 inches) fall in a day, nearly three times more than the national average for the past three decades. It’s not that long either. … It’s been eight weeks and we’re told we could see another downpour in September.

Obviously it’s being driven by climate change, said Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.

There was a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas like Balochistan and Sindh, which caused extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams were broken.

The heat was as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan consistently recorded temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Scorching temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) have been recorded in places like Jacobabad and Dadu.

Warmer air holds more moisture – about 7% more per degree Celsius (4% per degree Fahrenheit) and it eventually sinks, in this case in torrents.

Around the world, intense rainstorms are getting more intense, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climatologist at Princeton University. And he said mountains, like those in Pakistan, help extract extra moisture as clouds pass.

Instead of just swollen rivers flooded by additional rains, Pakistan is being hit by another source of flash floods: Extreme heat accelerates long-term glacier melt, then water descends from the Himalayas into Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called the flooding of glacial lakes.

We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and that affects us, said Climate Minister Rehman. Instead keep their majesty and preserve them for posterity and nature. We see them melting.

Climate change is not the only problem.

Pakistan experienced similar floods and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. But the government has failed to implement plans to prevent future flooding by stopping construction and homes in flood-prone areas and riverbeds, said Suleri of the country’s Climate Change Council.

The disaster is hitting a poor country that has contributed relatively little to the global climate problem, scientists and officials said. Since 1959, Pakistan has emitted about 0.4% heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% in the United States and 16.4% in China.

Those countries that grew or got rich on fossil fuels, which is really the problem, Rehman said. They are going to have to make a critical decision as the world comes to a tipping point. We have certainly already reached this point due to our geographical location.

(Only the title and image of this report may have been edited by Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Teresa H. Sadler