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Year-Ender: How India Battled Extreme Weather Events in 2023's Climatic Turmoil

The year commenced with unprecedented temperatures in February, breaking a record of the past 123 years.

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The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed that 2023 was the warmest year globally, breaking all previous records. The WMO's provisional 2023 State of the Global Climate report, released before COP28, emphasised the urgent need for action to curb global warming and its devastating impacts.

This warming trend is mirrored in India, where the India Meteorological Department (IMD) reported the warmest August and September in 122 years.  

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According to a report by the Center for Science and Environment, a significant shift has been observed in the winter, traditionally India's second-west period, with January and February experiencing above-average temperatures for the third consecutive year.

February 2023 was notably the warmest on record since 1901, accompanied by an alarming decline in rainfall, particularly in Central India, and a 76 per cent deficit in the Northwest region. Experts attribute these anomalies to changes in Western Disturbances (WDs), cyclonic storms originating in the Mediterranean, influenced by climate change.

Heatwaves persisted into June, impacting 12 states/UTs (union territories) and attributed to human-caused climate change by Climate Central. Between June and August, 11 states/UTs experienced higher temperatures, made at least three times more likely by the climate crisis. The India Meteorological Department linked this trend to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, projecting a further increase in frequency and duration by 2060. 

The pre-monsoon season in March witnessed extreme storm activities, leading to the highest rainfall in Central India and the Southern Peninsula since 1901. April saw unprecedented hailstorms on 27 out of 30 days, with heatwaves occurring seven days in at least nine states. A study by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) attributed these heatwaves in April to climate change, predicting their increased frequency. 

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Monsoon Meltdown and Climate-Induced Extremes

In 2023, India confronted a surge in extreme weather events, signalling a new normal heightened by climate change. The year commenced with unprecedented temperatures in February, breaking a record of the past 123 years. The impact of climate change became evident in April and June, marked by a humid heatwave in East and Central India that was made 30 times more likely. Cyclone Biparjoy in the Arabian Sea lingered for 13 days, setting a record as the longest-duration cyclone since 1977. 

Incessant rainfall wreaked havoc in North-West India, prompting flash floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, while Delhi grappled with its highest rainfall in four decades. Meteorologists and climate scientists attribute the escalating frequency of extreme weather events to rising global warming levels.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India, underscores that monsoonal rainfall will intensify and affect larger areas due to increased atmospheric moisture content. The IPCC Report 2023 warns of a 20 per cent surge in extreme rainfall events in the Indian subcontinent, leading to incessant and erratic rainfall, intensifying floods, and more frequent cyclonic events. 

India has witnessed a rise in average temperatures, decreased monsoon precipitation, increased extreme events, and a rise in sea levels since the mid-20th century. Analysts emphasise the continuous moisture feed from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea contributing to extreme weather events. 

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Himalayan Vulnerability Unveiled

In the tumultuous landscape of the Himalayas, 2023 has unfurled a harrowing sequence of events, with the latest being a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) wreaking havoc in Sikkim. From the submersion of Joshimath to the extensive losses witnessed in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh during the monsoon, the region grapples with unprecedented rainfall, landslides, and accelerated glacial melt, signalling the unmistakable impacts of climate change.

The intricate interplay of geological, hydrological, and meteorological hazards, coupled with an elevated seismic risk, paints a dire picture for the Himalayas. The existing framework reveals shortcomings in handling high-risk projects, often neglecting the impacts of climate change and lacking sophisticated methodologies.

The Himalayan region, home to numerous operational and upcoming hydroelectric projects, calls for a twofold approach: ensuring mega projects align with environmental preservation and fortifying against multiple threats through comprehensive risk assessments.

The evolving climate crisis necessitates a proactive stance, incorporating all risks during project design and establishing independent bodies for impartial risk assessments in the Himalayas. 

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Cyclonic Turmoil

In 2023, India faced the impact of several cyclones, contributing to a year marked by extreme weather events. Among the notable ones, Cyclone Biparjoy, the first severe cyclone of the year, made landfall in Western India near the Pakistan border on June 15. Initially classified as a very severe cyclonic storm, it was later downgraded to severe, causing substantial damage to Gujarat's Saurashtra and Kutch coasts.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued an orange alert, predicting the storm's trajectory across the Jakhau Port area, resulting in winds up to 125 km/h. The cyclone led to casualties, injuries, and widespread destruction of vegetation, infrastructure, and transport links. Rising sea surface temperatures in the Arabian Sea, attributed to climate change, were identified as a contributing factor to the cyclone's intensity. 

Another significant cyclone, Hamoon, struck the Bay of Bengal from October 23 to 25. With a maximum wind speed of 148 km/h, it affected the Eastern and Northeastern regions. Additionally, Cyclone Mocha, a Category 5 storm in the Bay of Bengal from May 11 to 14, did not make direct landfall in India but impacted Myanmar. 

These cyclones collectively resulted in a toll on human lives, causing casualties and injuries, while also inflicting substantial damage to infrastructure. The cyclones, exacerbated by climate change-induced factors, highlighted the vulnerability of coastal areas and underscored the need for effective disaster preparedness and mitigation measures in the face of increasingly frequent and intense tropical storms. 

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2023's Unusual Weather Patterns Sound a Call for Action 

Climate scientists and experts highlight multiple factors contributing to the unusual weather patterns in 2023. These include the alignment of weather systems, an atmospheric phenomenon amplifying global temperatures, more enormous wildfires releasing more carbon, warming in the North Atlantic Ocean, exceptional warming in the Arabian Sea since January, and unusual upper-level circulation patterns.

The tragedy in Sikkim, where lives and infrastructure succumbed to the forces of a GLOF, brings to light the critical oversight in constructing hydropower projects, failing to account for these complex dynamics.

The escalating frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, intensified by global warming, cast a looming threat over the region. As the narrative of the Sikkim tragedy unfolds, it underscores the imperative need for a comprehensive re-evaluation of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environment Clearance (EC) procedures.  

Recognising the urgent need for action, India must intensify efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, transition to renewable energy, enhance energy efficiency, and adopt sustainable practices. Strengthening early warning systems and building resilience to extreme weather events are crucial for safeguarding communities.

India's experience underscores the global imperative to address climate change collectively, focusing on reducing emissions and fostering adaptation measures to secure a sustainable future. 

(Anjal Prakash is a Clinical Associate Professor [Research] at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business [ISB]. He teaches sustainability at ISB and contributes to IPCC reports. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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