Home / Opinion / The year of big heat

What’s man-made and what’s not is very hard to separate in the tangled, complex creature that is global warming. For instance, California, whose gross domestic product in dollars is larger than India’s, has been experiencing since 2011 what is regarded the worst drought in its history.

The obvious blame fell on the unprecedented warming of the earth. But a study released this week, sponsored by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), attributes the drought to natural weather patterns, not global warming.

Yet, records I studied at the NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website clearly indicate that global warming itself is not in doubt. NOAA data indicate that 2014 is on track to become the warmest year ever since weather record-keeping began in 1880 (the year Hindi poet Munshi Premchand was born and Queen Victoria was Empress of India).

The first 10 months, January to October, were the warmest period recorded since then.

“The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for the January-October period (year-to-date) was 0.68°C above the 20th century average of 14.1°C," NCDC said. “The most recent 12-month period, November 2013-October 2014, broke the record (set just last month) for the all-time warmest 12-month period in the 135-year period of record."

These record temperatures hide variations. While parts of Siberia experienced temperatures 4-5°C below normal, Australia, Austria and Germany were more than 2°C hotter than recent averages. Global warming also hides a variety of weather patterns, and while climate scientists in general point to extreme weather events being a consequence of a warming world, it is none too clear which droughts, floods and storms are, eventually, a result of human activity.

The most recent analysis available from the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Global Atmosphere Watch Programme indicates that levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013. Data for 2014 have not yet been analysed.

“Globally-averaged atmospheric levels of CO2 reached 396.0 parts per million (ppm), approximately 142% of the pre-industrial average," the WMO said in a statement. “The increase from 2012 to 2013 was 2.9 ppm which is the largest year to year increase, with a number of stations in the Northern hemisphere recording levels above 400 ppm."

The overall increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 2003 to 2013 corresponds to around 45% of the gas emitted by human activities, such as factories and vehicles. The remaining 55% is absorbed by the land, the forests and oceans, the WMO said.

Those oceans are facing unprecedented warming, the warmest on record for October and 0.62°C warmer than the average over the 20th century. This marks the sixth month in a row (from May) that ocean temperatures broke such monthly records, NOAA data revealed.

Yet, the world’s oceans have warmed without an El Niño, the warming of large swathes of the Pacific Ocean once every five to seven years. There is a close to 60% chance for El Niño to develop during the coming winter in the northern hemisphere, the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said last week.

None of this is good news for India because it is already one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries and is now regarded one of the most vulnerable to higher-than-average temperature, erratic rainfall, rising seas and extreme weather events.

In March, a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that extreme weather patterns could affect India’s food security and spark disease outbreaks and water shortages.

Indians acknowledge that uncertain weather could seriously upturn their lives. In a 2011 Yale University study called Climate Change in the Indian Mind, a majority of Indian respondents (58% to 65%) said a year-long severe drought or flood in their area would have a large or medium impact on their lives, including their own household’s drinking water and food supply, their health, income or house, and their community.

As a polluter, India generates 1.9 tonnes of carbon per person per year, far below 7.2 tonnes in the US and 6.8 tonnes in China, according to the Global Carbon Project. But India tripled its emissions between 1990 and 2009. In the five years since 2009, its per capita emission has almost doubled from one tonne of carbon and is slated to overtake the European Union by 2019.

The NOAA does not have India-specific predictions of warming, but the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment, launched in 2010 by the government, predicted that the seasons might be warmer by 2°C by the 2030s, with a sea-surface temperature rise in the Indian Ocean likely to trigger fewer but more intense cyclones.

There is, of course, a high level of uncertainty in these predictions, as this week’s assessment of the California drought shows. But one thing appears clear: whether local or global, uncertainty—and a warmer world—is the new norm.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. This fortnightly column explores the cutting edge of science and technology.

Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com. To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail

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