Pakistan’s deadly floods have been ‘mellowed’ by climate change, scientists say
The familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place: scorching temperatures, warmer air that holds more moisture, extreme weather getting wilder, melting glaciers, people at risk, and poverty. They banded together in fragile Pakistan to cause unrelenting rain and deadly flooding.
The flood has all the hallmarks of a catastrophe caused by climate change, but it’s too early to formally blame global warming, several scientists tell The Associated Press. It happened in a country that did little to cause global warming, but continues to be affected, just like the relentless rain.
“Pakistan has had the most rain this year in at least three decades. So far this year it has rained more than 780 percent above average,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and member of the Pakistan Climate Change Council. “Extreme weather patterns are more common in the region and Pakistan is no exception.”
Climate Secretary Sherry Rehman said “it has been a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions”.
Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” said Moshin Hafeez, a climate scientist from Lahore at the International Water Management Institute. The rain, heat and melting glaciers are all climate change factors that scientists have repeatedly warned about.
While scientists point to these classic fingerprints of climate change, they are not done with complicated calculations comparing what happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. That study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine how much climate change is a factor, if at all.
The “recent flood in Pakistan is actually a result of the climate catastrophe … which loomed very large,” said Anjal Prakash, research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. “The kind of incessant rainfall that has happened … is unprecedented.”
Pakistan is used to monsoons and downpours, but “we expect them to spread, usually over three months or two months,” climate minister Rehman said.
There are usually breaks, she said, and not that much rain — 37.5 centimeters (14.8 in) falls in one day, nearly three times higher than the national average for the past three decades. “It’s not that long either. … It’s been eight weeks and we’ve been told we could see another downpour in September.”
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“Clearly, climate change is on the rise,” said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
Average rainfall in areas like Baluchistan and Sindh has increased by 400 percent, leading to extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams have broken through.
The heat is as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan consistently saw temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius. In places like Jacobabad and Dadu, scorching temperatures of more than 50 degrees Celsius were recorded.
Warmer air holds more moisture — about seven percent more per degree Celsius (4% per degree Fahrenheit) — and that eventually comes down, in this case in flash floods.
Across the world, “severe rainstorms are getting more intense,” says Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. And he said mountains, like those in Pakistan, help wring out extra moisture as the clouds pass.
Instead of just swollen rivers overflowing with additional rain, Pakistan is being hit by another source of flash flooding: the extreme heat accelerates the prolonged melting of the glacier, then the waters accelerate from the Himalayas to Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon that the glacial lake eruption.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the Arctic, and this affects us,” Climate Minister Rehman said. “Instead of preserving their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature. We see them melting.”
The whole problem is not climate change.
Pakistan saw similar floods and devastation in 2010, killing nearly 2,000 people. But the government failed to implement plans to prevent future flooding by preventing construction and homes in flood-prone areas and riverbeds, Suleri of the country’s Climate Change Council said.
The disaster affects 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% carbon dioxide that traps heat, compared to 21.5% from the United States and 16.4% from China.
“Those countries that have developed or become rich thanks to fossil fuels, that’s actually the problem,” Rehman said. “They will have to make a crucial decision that will bring the world to a tipping point. We have certainly already reached that point due to our geographical location.”