Cyclone-Hit India Searches for Answers in Climate Change

A leading India analyst advises that a committed agenda towards the conservation of environment will ensure that the adverse impact of disasters like the Phailin cyclone are minimized, and that we are better prepared for the future. The massive cyclone hits the shores of Indian states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on October 12, prompting India's biggest evacuation in 23 years with more than 550,000 people moved up from the coastline in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to safer places.
Posted on 10/18/13
By Kota Sriraj | Via The Pioneer
In these coastal areas of Odisha, a substantial portion of the population also earns their day to day living by fishing. As can be seen from this photograph in the port of Gopalpur, which bore the brunt of the storm, many boats now stand damaged, endangering the livelihoods of thousands. (Photo by ADRA India)
In these coastal areas of Odisha, a substantial portion of the population also earns their day to day living by fishing. As can be seen from this photograph in the port of Gopalpur, which bore the brunt of the storm, many boats now stand damaged, endangering the livelihoods of thousands. (Photo by ADRA India)

The predictions in a report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, published in September this year, already seem to be coming true, with the rapidly deteriorating environment and climate change (in India), which has resulted in nature’s extremities such as the Phailin cyclone.

Phailin attained the ‘category five’ status, affecting over 12 million people. It prompted India’s biggest evacuation in 23 years, with close to eight lakh people moved up from the coastlines in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to safer places. An alert government translated the early warning into action and ensured a proactive mass evacuation, which is being described as the largest pre-disaster evacuation in India’s history.

In fact, climate models are predicting two-to-seven-fold increase in the frequency of hurricane Katrina magnitude type of events for a one degree Centigrade rise in global temperature. According to a study by Nature Geoscience, greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with an intensity increase of two to 11 per cent. The incredible amounts of carbon dioxide produced over the past 60 years has driven global warming to new heights, causing a rise in sea levels. As a result, an average increase of 1.5 to four degree Celsius in different climate scenarios seems unavoidable. This, in turn, may push up the intensity of future cyclones.

The greenhouse gases being pumped at an accelerating rate into the atmosphere have resulted in sea surface temperatures in most tropical cyclone formation regions to increase by several tenths of a degree Celsius during the past several decades. The IPCC report concluded that most of the global surface temperature increase over the past half-century are very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

The US Climate Change Science Program mentions in its report that human-induced greenhouse gas increases have very likely contributed to the increase in sea surface temperatures in the hurricane-formation regions. These well researched observations raise a concerning issue of how substantial further warming in future, coupled with other changes in the tropical environment, would affect tropical cyclone activity.

The severity of cyclone Phailin also raises speculations about its conclusive link to climate change. For instance, it has been observed that there is an increase in numbers and proportion of intense hurricanes of the ‘category four’ and ‘five’ globally since 1970, with a simultaneous decrease in the total number of cyclones and cyclone days. But to begin with, there are very few historical records of tropical storms. This makes it difficult to understand whether the changes seen now exceed the variability expected from various natural causes.

In addition, changes in observational capabilities also make it difficult to compare the cyclones then and now. This ambiguity needs to be dispelled and a concrete study and findings are needed to understand the impact of climate change on the intensity and frequency of cyclones. Also, an effective scientific modeling technique is required to predict an accurate correlation between climate change and tropical cyclones and also monitor the impact and progress of corrective measures taken to offset such natural calamities.

The next stage of the challenge would be to research climate changes and, in turn, attribute the observed percentage change to natural causes and greenhouse gases or aerosols. Some research studies in this regard are already beginning to show a pattern of nature’s sensitivity to temperature changes; as a result, hurricanes of increasing magnitude can see a two-fold to seven-fold increase in the 21st century.

Though the recent cyclone, Phailin, thankfully could not inflict too serious a fatal blow, it has left behind in its wake massive economic damage. Cyclonic winds, heavy rains and flooding have destroyed over 5,00,000 hectares of crops worth an estimated Rs 24 billion (over 400 million dollars). The Government today needs to graduate from effective disaster management to minimization of economic damage as result of such disasters. This will ensure that the rehabilitation process is short.

On the other hand, a committed agenda towards the conservation of environment will ensure that the adverse impact of similar future disasters are minimized. For instance, in Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha, the Government felled more than 170,000 trees and betel vines (prior to the arrival of Phailin) that would have acted as natural barriers against strong winds during the cyclone. This felling was to facilitate the building of a corporate’s steel plant.

The authorities need to realize that with every such step today, we increase the possibility and the proportion of natural disasters that we may face  in the coming days.

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