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Why unusual weather is the new normal

A warm February after a surprisingly hot March last year are alarming signs of changing climate patterns. Are we ready?

Why unusual weather is the new normal

The sudden rise in temperature in February itself this year, it is feared, can severely impact the growth and productivity of the wheat crop. Reuters

Seema Sachdeva

Looking at the cloudless sky, 71-year-old Inderjit Singh Sekhon, a farmer in Sangrur, enters his fields with a heavy heart. There have been barely any rains this winter while the mercury has been rising steadily. With summer conditions in February itself, he fears that the wheat productivity will be low like last year, or maybe even worse, since even higher temperatures have been predicted this year. “The weather has been playing havoc with the crops. February and early March are the months when the wheat crop will enter the reproductive stage. Too much heat in this period can make the pollens sterile, besides affecting the yield and size of the crop. The frost had already affected the potato crop this season. The rising temperatures will increase the possibility of insect attack by aphids, which suck the sap and weaken the crop,” he says.

“Last year, the early sown crop didn’t get affected much since the heatwave had started around March, and most of the crop had already matured. But a warmer February is likely to impact this year’s early crop,” says Dr Pavneet Kaur Kingra, head, Department of Climate Change and Agriculture Metrology, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana. The researchers are already working on developing heat-resistant varieties, she says, adding that the PAU has been issuing advisories to farmers on minimising heat stress on crops by light watering and drip irrigation. If needed, 2 per cent potassium nitrate mixture should be sprayed in a phased manner, she says.

According to a report prepared by the scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad, the intense heatwave of March-April last year had brought down the wheat yield by up to 25 per cent in several districts of Punjab, the biggest contributor to India’s foodgrain buffer stock. This year, the productivity is likely to get even worse as the temperatures are expected to rise. A study published by the National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change under the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2016 had projected that if the temperature rise is from 2.5°C to 4.9°C, the yield of rice will drop by 32-40 per cent and that of wheat by 41-52 per cent. A warmer February is leading to the possibility of a hotter summer this year.

The northwest region, including Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and New Delhi, is already witnessing above normal temperatures. The Indian Metrological Department (IMD) has expressed the possibility of the spring season being altogether missed with an early onset of summer. According to Manmohan Singh, head of IMD, Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana, the northwesterly winds (paschimi vikshobh in Hindi), or the extratropical storms arising in the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea, are responsible for the winter rains and a dip in the temperature. These have been very weak this year, leading to the rising temperatures. “Mercury is already up by 7-8ºC in Haryana, 4-6ºC in Punjab and 6-7ºC in Chandigarh. Summer temperatures are likely to soar much above the normal this year,” he says.

This is the new normal, points out Anjal Prakash, an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022. “Climate change is here and now. In more than 2000 years of world history, this is for the first time that the earth has warmed up 1.1ºC. The end of the century target of 1.5ºC is likely to be breached by 2050 itself. Variable weather patterns are the first signs of climate change. Earlier, we could predict the weather. Our festivals like Makar Sankranti and Teej were based on the changing seasons but the weather patterns have become too striking. This is likely to severely affect climate sensitive sectors like agriculture. Due to the lack of predictability, farmers will not be able to sow or harvest in time, which will affect the overall yield.”

“The weather change and higher temperatures are on expected lines as the weather cycles are shifting from La Nina to El Nino phenomenon. We are in a two-year cycle and the extreme temperatures will continue till next year,” says Dr Ravindra Khaiwal, Professor of Environment Health, Department of Community Medicine & School of Public Health, PGIMER. Chandigarh.“The increase in temperatures can lead to heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion, particularly for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, and outdoor workers. This will increase the burden on healthcare systems,” he adds.

“For those living in urban spaces, the impact will be even more daunting, physically as well as economically. The rising temperatures will superimpose on the already hot environment in cities and increase the demand for water and electricity, besides adding to the requirement of coolers and air conditioners,” says Prakash.

Meanwhile, at 9ºC above normal, Delhi recorded the third highest February temperature at 33.6ºC since 1969, while Churu recorded 40ºC on February 16, the earlier record being set on February 28, 1953.

Shimla, the capital of the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, broke the previous record of February 23, 2015, of 14.2ºC minimum temperature by recording 14.4ºC on February 18. This was 11ºC above normal. For the state to which tourism contributes about 7.5 per cent of the GDP, the absence of snow saw tourists giving a cold shoulder to this once-favourite winter destination. Those who had come to holiday in the hill state were seen enjoying ice-creams.

The rising temperatures in the hills has made Shimla-based DP Bhatia sceptical of the future of tourism industry in the Queen of Hills. Says Bhatia, who has been working in the hotel industry for close to five decades, “There were times when as soon as it would snow in Shimla, tourists from Chandigarh, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi would make a beeline to witness its white beauty. For the first time in many years, there’s been no snow in Shimla. The scanty snowfall in the higher reaches of Narkanda and Kufri was not enough to bring tourists to the hill station. Weather is becoming too unpredictable.” It is time to stop depending on snow to promote the state’s tourism industry, he says. “We need to think out of the box and promote lesser-explored destinations like Hattu, Tattapani, Kharapathar, etc. We also need to highlight local culture, cuisine, nature walks, besides offering options like basking in the winter sun,” he adds.

The soaring temperatures in Shimla saw a slight dip after it received its first winter rain on February 21. Horticulture expert SP Bhardwaj says, “Such a long spell of drought hasn’t been seen in 17 years. The state was already heading towards 23-24ºC temperatures, generally seen in March. Thankfully, the rain has led to a fall in the mercury. The chilling of apple is almost complete. Now there is good chance of uniform flowering of apples. If the heatwave had continued unabated, the yield would have gone down.”

The rising mercury has been leading to increased forest fires as well. Last April saw 750 incidents of forest fires in Himachal. A report of the Forest Survey of India has attributed this number to the spike in temperature.

The increasing temperature also adds to the risk of built environment. A worrying report released recently by the Cross Dependency Initiative has stated that nine states in India, including Punjab, are among the world’s top 50 regions at risk of damage to built environment due to climate change hazard.

Says Prakash, “Punjab lies in the Terai region of the lower edges of the Himalayas. Its rivers are majorly fed from the melting glaciers of the Himalayas during the summer. A rise in temperatures will see the melting all the year round, thus bringing about a change in the river regimes. We do not have enough infrastructure to manage this kind of change yet.”

Climate change has been taking place due to human intervention, and if the 2050 threshold is breached, there will be no going back, says Prakash. “The low carbon emissions recorded during the pandemic have revealed that all is not lost and we still have a few years to reverse this mess. All countries of the world need to come together and help reduce the carbon emissions,” he says. To this end, “we can contribute by protecting our water bodies and planting more trees, both of which are major carbon sinks.”

New challenges crop up

  • The rabi wheat crop is in its reproductive stage in the month of March. A sudden rise in temperatures during this period can enhance the maturity of the crop.
  • Proper grain development gets affected, which can lead to the shrivelling of grains. This may result in a significant reduction in productivity.
  • Studies have found that a 1ºC rise in temperature may lead to 6 per cent reduction in the productivity of wheat.
  • The heatwave conditions can become disastrous when the high temperatures are accompanied by deficit rainfall. Such weather conditions were experienced in March and April last year, leading to up to 25 per cent fall in wheat productivity.
  • To prevent damage to the crops, it is essential to maintain adequate soil moisture and minimise heat stress. Light irrigation or drip irrigation should be done. If needed, a 2 per cent mixture of potassium nitrate should be applied.
  • Selection of suitable crop varieties, tolerant to heat stress, should be used according to the prevailing weather conditions.

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