The Pulse

What’s Behind India’s Deadly Heat Wave?

A closer look at a hot topic.

What’s Behind India’s Deadly Heat Wave?
Credit: Flickr/Tom Thai

Why is India so hot? And we don’t mean the economy, the food, or the people, though those are too. India, which is normally blistering in any case, is currently experiencing a deadly heat wave. The current heat wave is the deadliest since 1979 when records began being kept on heat waves. Over 1,800 individuals have perished in the present heat wave.

Temperatures in Delhi are reported to have been at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) for over a week now, reaching a high of 111.2°F (44°C). Temperatures in the state of Odisha reached 116.6°F (47°C). Allegedly, some roads have melted. The heat wave was especially bad in the south-central Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the majority of deaths have occurred. The Indian government has advised people to avoid going out in the afternoons, but this is impossible for many people who need to work everyday.

Climate change is a factor in the current heat wave in India, though it frequently gets really hot in the summer in any case. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), “Higher daily peak temperatures and longer, more intense heat waves are becomingly increasingly frequent globally due to climate change. India too is feeling the impact of climate change in terms of increased instances of heat waves which are more intense in nature with each passing year, and have a devastating impact on human health thereby increasing the number of heat wave casualties.”

The Indian subcontinent has interesting climatic patterns that set it apart from the rest of the world and have given rise to some of its interesting cultural characteristics. South Asia as a whole is hotter than it should be at its latitude. The reason for this is the Himalayan Mountains, which bound the subcontinent to the north. Cold air from Central Asia or Siberia does not make it to South Asia. Rather, it gets trapped in Central and Northern Asia, making the Tibetan plateau intensely cold. In turn, South Asia is 3-5°C (5-9°F) warmer than it would have been without the Himalayas.

Often, high mountain ranges block off moisture and the lands beyond them are deserts. Luckily, however, India has monsoons. India’s seasons are different from those of more temperate regions. While it is still spring in much of the world, in the Indian seasonal scheme—which contains six seasons—it is now summer. The rainy, or monsoon season is predicted to begin at the end of the month in southwestern India and will hopefully envelope the entire subcontinent by July, flowing in a northeast direction. This will provide much needed succor for those suffering from India’s heat wave, especially as the rice planting season begins. Unfortunately however, this means that many parts of India will have to wait several weeks for relief.