The familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place: scorching temperatures, warmer air holding more moisture, raging extreme weather events, melting glaciers, people living poorly, and poverty. They combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create relentless rain and deadly floods.
The floods have 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 did little to cause the warming, but it continues to be hit, just like the relentless rain.
“This year Pakistan has the highest rainfall in at least three decades. So far this year the rain is running at more than 780% above average levels,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Policy Institute for Sustainable Development and a member of the Pakistan 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 “an unprecedented disaster”.
Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” said Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climate scientist at the International Water Management Institute. Its rain, heat and melting glaciers are all factors in climate change that scientists have repeatedly warned about.
While scientists point to these classic signatures of climate change, they have yet to complete complex 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 flooding in Pakistan is actually a result of the climate disaster … which was too big,” said Anjal Prakash, director of research at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. “The kind of incessant rainfall that happened … was unprecedented.”
Pakistan is used to monsoons and rainfall, but “we expect them to spread out, usually over three or two months,” said the country’s climate minister Rehman.
There are usually breaks, he said, and not that much rain — 37.5 centimeters (14.8 inches) fall in one day, nearly three times the national average over the past three decades. “It’s not that long either. … It’s been eight weeks and we’re being told we might see another downpour in September.”
“Clearly, climate change is affected by climate change,” said Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
There has been a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas such as Balochistan and Sindh, which has led to the extreme floods, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams have been breached.
The heat was as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan consistently saw temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Scorching temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) were 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 falls, in this case in torrents.
Around the world, “heavy rainfall is becoming more intense,” Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. And he said mountains, such as those in Pakistan, help remove excess moisture as clouds pass by.
Instead of just overflowing rivers from extra rain, Pakistan is being hit with another source of flash flooding: Extreme heat accelerates the long-term melting of glaciers, and then the water rushes down from the Himalayas into Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called a flash flood glaciers.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region and this affects us,” said Climate Minister Rehman. “Instead of preserving their greatness and preserving them for posterity and nature. We see them melting.”
Climate change is not the whole problem.
Pakistan experienced similar floods and disasters in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. However, the government has not implemented plans to prevent future flooding by preventing 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% of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% from the United States and 16.4% from China.
“Countries that have developed or gotten rich off of fossil fuels are really the problem,” Rehman said. “They will have to make a critical decision that the world is coming to a tipping point. We’ve certainly already reached that point because of our geographic location.”
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland. Arasu from Delhi, India. Munir Ahmed contributed from Lahore, India and Aniruddha Gosal from Delhi, India.
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