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Read the signals

There’s no conclusive proof yet that climate change was behind the recent disaster in Ladakh. But denying its role will be risky, writes Darryl D’Monte.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2010 21:44 IST

Unfortunate though it may seem, many Indians only identify with Ladakh because of the popularity of Three Idiots and the progressive school there which Aamir Khan has now gone to assist. We tend to forget that it is part of Jammu and Kashmir because the unrest in the valley obscures everything else. Ladakh is often described as a cold desert, with scanty rainfall, which is why Leh and its environs were overwhelmed by the unprecedented cloudburst on August 6, which triggered flash floods.

We do not seem overly concerned either that erratic weather has caused even worse damage in Pakistan. The floods are estimated to be the very worst in that country’s history, with as many as 1,500 killed, 2 million rendered homeless, 20 million affected and a million acres of farm land under water. Cholera and other epidemics are a constant threat. The United Nations has termed the situation the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in recent history. And it is not as if the monsoon has withdrawn, so further mayhem is on the cards. Even further from our reckoning is the situation in China, also
battered by massive floods.

There is no easy scientific explanation for these erratic events and it would be premature to conclusively blame climate change for causing them. As it happens, these floods have been accompanied by extreme heat waves in the northern hemisphere. According to an expert from the authoritative Pew Centre on Climate Change in the US, this is the worst heat wave and drought that Russia has witnessed in its documented history. Moscow has seen the mercury soar to unprecedented levels; forests and fields have caught fire elsewhere in the country. The fires have destroyed a quarter of Russia’s crops and forced the government to ban grain exports, a major source of revenue.

Two top US meteorologists have found that floods in Pakistan and heat waves in Russia are, in fact, connected. An “intense dome of high atmospheric pressure” has settled over Eastern Europe and blocked the flow of the cooling jet stream, which precipitates rainfall. Western Europe witnessed a similar ‘blocking high’ in the catastrophic heat wave of 2003, and the drought led to a sharp fall in crop yields in southern Europe. Although this was only seven years ago, public memory is proverbially short: more than 40,000 Europeans died as a consequence, mainly the old and infirm, with France the worst affected.

This ‘block’ over Russia forced the jet stream southwards, carrying with it abundant moisture which should normally have irrigated Russia’s wheat crops. This combined with the monsoon, which was already descending on the region at this time of the year, causing a double whammy. As the Pew Centre expert puts it, “The combination of the two was just too much, so while Russia’s crops withered and burned, Pakistan’s crops drowned.”

While the science behind erratic weather patterns is admittedly still in its infancy, one can surely rely on human observation to conclude that it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict them. In India itself, states in the east have so far had a shortfall this monsoon, while some western states like Maharashtra have been blessed with an excess. In Mumbai, every July, residents do recall with trepidation the inexplicable mega flood of 2005 which brought the city to its knees.

The first half of 2010 has seen the hottest six-month period for the globe in recorded world history, which extends back to 1880. At the beginning of June, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Chad, Niger, Pakistan, and Myanmar have all set new records for their hottest temperatures of all time. One location in Pakistan recorded the highest temperature in Asia ever — an astonishing 53.5 degrees on May 26. Of course, climate science has its sceptics, who point out that there are years or months when countries or regions have recorded intensive cooling rather than warming. However, US data show that for every record low temperature set, there are two highs. In other words, there is a gradual rise in average world temperatures, which may be fluctuating but is nevertheless on the ascent.

The sceptics had a field day before and after the Copenhagen climate summit last December, when they poked holes in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s erroneous prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. The scientist in the eye of this storm was a leading Indian glaciologist, Syed Hasnain, now with The Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, who briefed environmental journalists in Leh last November how global warming was leading to the rapid depletion of these precious reservoirs of water. Leh used to depend on the melt from a glacier just outside the town, which has now receded. While it is impossible to date this process, there is hardly any doubt that the weather in the Himalayas is changing, as the floods in Ladakh demonstrate, and glaciers will melt.

The fact is that as yet, no scientist can prove that sudden bouts of rain or snow or warming are definitely due to climate change. But, by the very same token, there is no proof that these aren’t caused by it. Indeed, climate change is the only constant and, given the lack of evidence to the contrary, seems to be one, if not the only, plausible explanation. It would be extremely shortsighted to ignore all the dire warnings around us.

Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)

The views expressed by the author are personal