The climate minister of Pakistan has said that floodwaters have spread across one-third of the country, making this the worst flooding event in the country’s history.
The cumulative effects are becoming increasingly catastrophic. There have been almost 1,100 fatalities, 1,000,000 property losses, and 33,000,000 individuals directly impacted. Damages are estimated to be above US$10 billion (£8.6 billion), and more havoc will be wreaked on the economy and on agricultural production if nothing is done.
A national emergency was declared on August 25. As the UN secretary-general António Guterres put it, “Today, it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it may be your country.”
On a grand scale, this makes perfect sense. Human emissions of greenhouse gases are increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme rains, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Furthermore, the intensity of this impact will grow as emissions rise.
In contrast, it is essential to delve deeper into the impact of climate change (or lack thereof) for certain occurrences that have such far-reaching societal ramifications. While the IPCC statement holds internationally, its most recent report notes it has only “low confidence” in how much climate change is to blame for rising heavy rains in south Asia.
We must make the most efficient use of our limited resources by determining the origins of the observed changes if we are to avoid needless loss of life and financial ruin.
Massive Monsoon Downpours Set New Highs
If you’re looking for a yes/no answer to the issue of whether or not climate change “caused” a recent extreme weather event, you could be asking the wrong one. Instead, we investigate whether or not climate change affects the frequency and severity of the incident. Extreme event attribution is the term for this phenomenon.
In this case, a very intense monsoon season is to blame for the floods. Desert conditions prevail over most of Pakistan, which is located on the westernmost boundary of the south Asian monsoon area. Rainfall is far lower than in comparable regions of India, and the monsoon only occasionally makes an appearance there.
From mid-June to late August, Pakistan was hit by a series of intense downpours, with some regions receiving as much as 700 percent more precipitation than normal for the month of August.
Another Disadvantage of Global Warming?
The Pakistan Meteorological Department has stated that global warming is to blame for the abnormally heavy rains and floods.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced in 2021 that south Asian countries have seen a surge in extreme rainfall occurrences. Some research suggests this is the result of global warming brought on by humans.
Although there is some consensus across the reviewed research, other factors, such as irrigation, are known to affect monsoons, therefore the science is far from settled. This low level of confidence precludes making any firm attribution statements without more inquiry.
Even if a comprehensive study isn’t immediately available, recent precedents may provide useful insights. In 2010, Pakistan was hit by floods of a comparable magnitude; at the time, Ban Ki-moon, Guterres’ predecessor at the UN, called it the biggest disaster he’d ever seen.
This occurrence was evaluated in two different attribution studies. Unfortunately, neither demonstrated the effectiveness of the employed models. Therefore, we cannot have a lot of faith in this result, even though one of them found an increase due to human climate change.
Aspects that contributed to this calamity can provide clues as to the role of climate change. To break it down, there are three primary causes.
The first problem is the heavy downpours. Warmer temperatures allow the air to hold more moisture. South Asia has warmed about 0.7 °C since 1900, and it is estimated that for every additional degree the atmosphere warms, it can hold about 6%-7% more moisture, often resulting in more rain falling during the most extreme events. The intensity of the precipitation would have likely been lower if this had occurred in a world when carbon dioxide concentrations were at pre-industrial levels.
The second factor is the complexity and unpredictability of the monsoon itself. During the summer in south Asia, it develops when the air over land heats more quickly than the air over the sea, causing a flow of air onto the land. When the winds hit the higher ground, like the Himalayas, they bring a lot of rain.
It is possible to anticipate some of Pakistan’s unusual monsoon downpours. This year, like in 2010, a La Nia event in the Pacific coincided with large meanders in the high-altitude jet stream, causing an El Nio.
Increasing data suggest that this convergence of elements may occur more frequently as the climate changes. If this pattern continues, extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere, including flooding in Pakistan, will become more common.
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Climate change exacerbated the already severe heat waves that hit Pakistan in May and June of this year. Because of the increased temperature, the monsoonal “thermal low” (a low-pressure system caused by hot air rising quickly) was able to bring more humid air to southern Pakistan.
Third, more than 7,000 glaciers may be found in the northern mountain regions of Pakistan. This flooding is exacerbated by the melting of glaciers. This melting is exacerbated this year because of the heatwave, and it is driven in major part by climate change.
Proactive Is Far Cheaper than Reactive
Taking preventative measures is often more cost-effective than responding to problems after they arise. In terms of the effects of global warming, Pakistan is on the front lines. There is little doubt that climate change has contributed to the severity of the current flooding. At worst, it set off a domino effect that has already resulted in millions more lives being ruined than would have been the case otherwise.
Projections show that Pakistan is likely to see significant increases in intense rainfall as a result of future climate change. The nation must make plans for future flooding in order to prevent repeats of or even greater catastrophes. To do this, international adaptation financing needs to rise to offset the disproportionately large role that wealthy nations have had in bringing about the current climate.
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