Interest in heat records, climate change growing in Asia as mercury rises

Interest in heat records, climate change growing in Asia as mercury rises
A Pakistani driver cooling off as temperatures soar in Islamabad on June 3. A recent blast of epically hot weather across Asia has underscored how extreme heat can severely disrupt daily life. Photo: AFP
Published: 4:00 AM, June 19, 2017

ISLAMABAD (Pakistan) — Residents of Turbat, a remote town in south-western Pakistan, have had to cope with punishingly hot weather for generations. But when temperatures climbed to 54°C on May 28 — potentially the hottest ever recorded in Asia — relief proved elusive, partly because Turbat suffers from regular electricity shortages.

Refrigerators stopped working during that May scorcher, as did ice factories. “It got so hot that people here said that there is no difference between Turbat and hell,” Mr Noroz Bin Shabir, a student from the town, said by telephone. “It was like a fire was burning outside.”

The temperature in Turbat prompted discussions on social media and among extreme-weather experts about whether an Asian record had really been reached.

Had meteorologists in Pakistan rounded up the reading by 0.5°C, some observers asked, to an Asian record of 54°C, and would that adjustment prevent history from being made?

The rapporteur on weather and climate extremes for United Nations agency World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Randall Cerveny later said it was unclear if any rounding-up had been done.

He added that the 54°C measurement, if confirmed, and an identical one from Kuwait last summer would be the third-highest ever recorded on the planet behind 56.7°C at Furnace Creek, in Death Valley, California, in 1913 and 55°C in Kebili, Tunisia, in 1931.

The attention paid to the temperature reading in Pakistan highlights how interest in heat records is growing across Asia, alongside rising awareness of climate change.

Scientists have documented a rise of heat extremes in many parts of the world, and they say the trend is consistent with what they expect on a planet that is warming because of human emissions of greenhouse gases.

“A record is an absolute thing, so it’s not just a little bit better or a little bit warmer, or the average has increased by X degrees,” said Professor Susanne Becken of Griffith University in Australia, who studies how people seek information about climate change.

As heat records accumulate, “people get more and more convinced that climate change is happening”, Prof Becken said.

A recent blast of epically hot weather across vast regions of Asia has underscored how extreme heat can severely disrupt daily life, especially in poor countries at low latitudes — a problem that scientists say will worsen as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

Sixteen of the 17 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000, scientists say, and last year was both the hottest since modern record-keeping began in the 19th century and the third consecutive record-breaking year.

The heat is pushing people around the world towards the limits of what climatologists call “thermal comfort”, with complex implications for public health and food security.

When a record temperature is announced, “people start asking questions about their life and their future”, said Mr Omar Baddour, a senior scientist at the WMO in Geneva.

The effects have been especially dramatic in India, where officials said that more than 2,400 people, mostly labourers and farmhands, died from heat-related illnesses in 2015 — the year of a severe heatwave there.

That episode, one of four in India since 1998 that each killed more than 1,000 people, ranks as the fifth-deadliest heatwave in history, said meteorology director at the online weather service Weather Underground Jeff Masters.

The Indian government created a national prevention and management response plan for heatwaves, but experts say that extreme heat in India and beyond still poses disproportionately high risks for the poor. A study found, for example, that when a deadly 2015 heatwave swept through Karachi, Pakistan, residents with limited education and monthly incomes of less than US$196 (S$270) faced a significantly higher risk of death.

Unskilled labourers “don’t have the luxury of taking the afternoon off work, so they’ll cool off under a tree for a bit but keep returning to work,” said team manager for the Agriculture Department Shravan Jha, in Bihar, a province in India’s north-east. “There is lots of poverty here, and let’s say a construction worker takes the day off: How will he feed his kids?”

Another recent hotspot for heat records is South-east Asia, where monthly mean temperatures in April last year were the highest since record-keeping began there in the mid-20th century, a study in the scientific journal Nature Communications reported this month. The heat disrupted crop production, caused a spike in energy use and “imposed societal distress”, the study said.

Extreme heat has returned again this spring, with temperatures in some parts of South-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent pushing 40°C for days on end, often in tandem with shirt-soaking humidity.

“Too much concrete, fewer lakes than we used to have, and all the air-conditioners raise the temperature,” said climate change expert in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nguyen Ngoc Huy, of ISET-International, a nonprofit research group working on disaster risk management in Asia.

For decades, the highest temperature ever recorded was believed to be a 58°C reading in 1922 from what is now Libya. But in 2012, the WMO rejected it, in part because of what a study described as “potentially problematical instrumentation”. This transferred the record to the 56.7°C recorded in Death Valley more than 100 years ago.

Temperatures at the absolute extreme end of the scale are still rare because they are created by highly unusual atmospheric conditions, Mr Baddour, the senior scientist, said, but the odds that Furnace Creek’s record will be broken are growing as the planet warms.

“The next record will be very amazing,” he said. “If it happens.”