The familiar ingredients of a warming world were there: scorching temperatures, hotter air containing more moisture, extreme weather becoming more savage, melting glaciers, people living in peril, and poverty. They united in endangered Pakistan to cause unrelenting rain and deadly floods.
The flooding has all the hallmarks of a climate change-induced disaster, but it’s too early to formally blame global warming, several scientists tell The Associated Press. It happened in a country that has done little to warm but keeps getting hit, as does the relentless rain.
“This year, Pakistan has received its highest rainfall in at least three decades. So far this year, it has rained more than 780% above average,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of the Climate Change Council of Pakistan. “Extreme weather patterns are more common in the region and Pakistan is no exception.”
Climate Secretary Sherry Rehman said: “It was a disaster of unprecedented proportions.”
Pakistan “is considered the eighth country most affected by climate change,” said Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climate scientist at the International Water Management Institute. Its rain, heat, and melting glaciers are all factors in climate change that scientists have repeatedly warned about.
While scientists point to these classic climate change fingerprints, they have yet to complete complicated calculations comparing what happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. This study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine to what extent, if at all, climate change is a factor.
The “recent flood in Pakistan is actually a result of the climate catastrophe … which loomed large,” said Anjal Prakash, research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. “The kind of incessant rain that happened… was unprecedented.”
Pakistan is used to monsoons and downpours, but “we expect them to spread, usually over three or two months,” said the country’s climate minister, Rehman.
There are usually breaks, she said, and not that much rain — 37.5 centimeters (14.8 inches) falls in a day, nearly three times the national average over the past three decades. “It’s not that long either. … It’s been eight weeks and we’ve been told we could see another downpour in September.”
“It’s clearly being juiced by climate change,” said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
In areas like Balochistan and Sindh, average rainfall has increased by 400%, leading to extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams were breached.
The heat was as unrelenting as the rain. Temperatures consistently exceeded 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in Pakistan in May. Searing temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) have been recorded in places like Jacobabad and Dadu.
Warmer air holds more moisture – about 7% more per degree Celsius (4% per degree Fahrenheit) – and that eventually comes down, in this case in torrents.
Around the world, “intense rainstorms are getting more intense,” said climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. And he said mountains like those in Pakistan help squeeze out extra moisture as the clouds roll by.
Instead of swollen rivers being inundated by additional rain, Pakistan is being hit by flash floods from another source: The extreme heat is accelerating the long-term melting of glaciers, then the water gushes in a dangerous phenomenon called glacial lake flooding Himalayas down to Pakistan.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside of the polar region and that affects us,” said Climate Minister Rehman. “Instead of preserving her majesty and preserving her for posterity and nature. We see them melt.”
Climate change isn’t the only problem.
Pakistan experienced similar flooding and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. But the government has failed to implement plans to prevent future flooding by preventing construction and housing in flood-prone areas and riverbeds, said Suleri of the country’s Climate Change Council.
The disaster hits a poor country that has contributed relatively little to the world’s climate problem, scientists and officials said. Since 1959, Pakistan has emitted about 0.4% of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% in the United States and 16.4% in China.
“These countries that have developed or gotten rich on fossil fuels are really the problem,” Rehman said. “You will have to make a critical decision that the world is coming to a turning point. Given our geographic location, we have certainly already reached that point.”
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland. Arasu from Delhi, India. Munir Ahmed from Lahore, India and Aniruddha Gosal from Delhi, India contributed.
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