Is climate change making cyclones worse?

Since the turn of the century, at least eight violent cyclones, including Cyclone Ockhi, have hit the subcontinent

December 09, 2017 04:21 pm | Updated 04:21 pm IST

 A man looks on as a road gets cut off when Cyclone Ockhi hit Kanyakumari last week.

A man looks on as a road gets cut off when Cyclone Ockhi hit Kanyakumari last week.

The fury of Cyclone Ockhi is now spent, leaving behind an alarming trail of death by the score and massive destruction in its wake. Hundreds of fishermen are still reported missing at sea.

The damage to livelihoods of millions of farmers and fishers in coastal Tamil Nadu and Kerala is yet to be calculated, but will surely run into millions. The first cyclone of the season, which raged in a wide swathe from Kanyakumari to Mumbai, has reignited discussions on how much of the devastation due to a natural calamity is influenced by human-induced climate change.

The first thing we need to realise is that we cannot and should not deny that climate change is taking place and we are responsible for it. It’s not as if climate change is a banana peel we have stepped upon accidentally and have taken a toss. Rather, we have hosed down a racetrack and are now trying to run through the slush.

It is widely recognised that global warming is leaving millions of people vulnerable to more frequent natural disasters. Can we then say that Cyclone Ockhi happened due to climate change? The answer is not easy.

Everything is related

Scientists are chary of connecting a specific extreme weather event to climate change but trends clearly show that they are interrelated. They recognise that not everything is known about how global warming affects cyclones such as Ockhi or hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria earlier this year in the Atlantic Ocean that ravaged coastal America and the Caribbean islands.

Tropical cyclones are atmospheric depressions that have a so-called eye at the centre, which is surrounded by what is known as a wall — an area that has strong winds of up to 300 km per hour, as well as a rise in the sea level, and strong swells which, combined with strong rainfalls, cause severe floods.

According to a widely cited paper by Kerry Emanuel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Nature journal, written more than 10 years ago, there is an increasing destructiveness from tropical cyclones in the past 30 years. His research suggested that the future warming of oceans, which has since indeed taken place, will lead to increasing destructive potential of cyclones. Since coastal populations in the world, and particularly in India, are rising rapidly, it is expected there will be a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century.

The occurrences in the Indian subcontinent over the past decade have borne out his worst fears. Since the turn of the century, there have been at least eight intense cyclones when wind speeds have exceeded 200 km per hour. Cyclone Alia, which hit Bangladesh in in 2007, killed some 340 people and left a million homeless. Cyclone Phailin savaged Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in 2013, affecting 12 million people. More than half a million people had to be evacuated.

The memories of Cyclone Vardah, which hit Indonesia, Malaysia and South India last year, are still fresh. In Tamil Nadu alone, 16,000 people had to be evacuated and there were damages worth more than ₹67 billion. It made landfall in Chennai on December 12, uprooting trees, smashing cars, bringing down telecommunication, and severely disrupting life in the city.

Violent cyclones

There is sufficient scientific evidence that ocean temperatures will continue to increase in the coming decades due to climate change, which will give birth to increasingly violent cyclones. In the face of such a reality, the only path left for us is to build resilience, particularly among vulnerable populations. The economic losses will also be greater because more assets are being created in India’s coastal cities.

We need to urgently sort out systems that provide early warnings of violent storms. There are already murmurs that the Met Department was slow in issuing cyclone warnings, thus jeopardising the lives of hundreds of fishermen at sea and those living in low-lying coastal areas. If this is indeed true, we need to take action to rectify this shortcoming by updating our weather forecasting systems.

Disaster preparedness in India is also known to be notoriously shabby. Cyclone Ockhi has once again exposed the tardy response by authorities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For instance, civil society organisations have alleged that Kerala’s State Disaster Management Authority could have taken more prompt action that would have saved more lives, which the agency has refuted. Be that as it may, it’s time we recognise that extreme weather events have to be countered with mitigation strategies if we are to soften the suffering of people impacted by climate change.

The writer is Managing Editor of @scurve

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