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Nature’s fury 2019: A year of extremes for India

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Record extreme events exacted a heavy toll on human, animal lives and property in India as a high-impact mix of seven cyclones, the heaviest monsoon in 25 years, floods that killed thousands of people and one of the longest heatwaves in three-decade, pummeled the country.

Nature’s fury 2019: A year of extremes for India
Record extreme events exacted a heavy toll on human, animal lives and property in India as a high-impact mix of seven cyclones, the heaviest monsoon in 25 years, floods that killed thousands of people and one of the longest heatwaves in three-decade, pummeled the country.
Mincing no words, the World Meteorological Organisation said 2019 concludes a decade of exceptional global heat and high-impact weather. On a day-to-day basis, the impacts of climate change play out through extreme and “abnormal” weather.
In a statement at the 25th iteration of the United Nation’s Conference of Parties (COP 25) in Madrid, Spain, the Organisation listed the delayed onset and withdrawal of Indian monsoon and cyclone Fani as among the year’s “high impact” events. As many as 22 million people would be displaced by December 31, 2019, due to extreme weather events, the WMO said.
In four years (2014-2017), over 5,800 people and 10,000 cattle died due to extreme weather events like cold wave, heatwave, heavy rainfall resulting in floods, hailstorm, lightning and cyclonic storms. Of these, at least 3,650 were due to heat waves and cold waves alone, notes the draft of India’s report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Data analysed by Mongabay-India revealed that in 2019 monsoon season, till August, at least 1,351 people died in India due to floods, heavy rainfall and landslides compared to over 1,550 people in 2018.
According to a report by Christian Aid, a UK-based charity organisation, cyclone Fani, which hit India and Bangladesh, displaced 3.4 million people and uprooted more than 10 million trees in India.
The country also witnessed a 113.74 percent increase in forest fires in a span of a year between 2018 and 2019. According to the Forest Survey of India, nearly 36 percent of the country’s forests are prone to fires and of this, over 10 percent are highly prone.
Data analysis also brought to the fore the burden of lightning deaths – lightning strikes claimed the most number of lives between 2001 and 2014, among deaths due to exposure to severe weather.
The IPCC report predicts higher risk from droughts and precipitation deficits if global warming not addressed. Photo by Pushkarv/Wikimedia Commons.
As this year draws to a close, we take a look at the stories that Mongabay-India produced on extreme weather events, their immediate and potentially long-term impacts on humans and animals, how they affect the vulnerable groups and what solutions may work in the future. Our content, spanning across Environment and HealthFlood and Drought, and Environment and Her series, reflects how scientific data and ground-truthing waltz in step to create powerful, inclusive narratives.
As the weekend began for the rest of the world, extremely severe cyclonic storm Fani tore into the east coast of India battering Odisha on May 3 and claiming over 30 lives. The cyclone, one of the rarest summer cyclones, prompted an evacuation of a “record 1.2 million people in 24 hours” to shelters before it made landfall in the temple town of Puri.
Mongabay-India combined ground reporting and mined data to analyse why and how Odisha needs to up its ante in disaster management despite winning international laurels for its work since the deadly Supercyclone 1999 that killed 10,000 people.
Barely a month after Fani’s devastation, India clinched global headlines again in June 2019. The country was sizzling as it battled one of the longest heatwaves in three decades. Mongabay-India discussed how the heatwave hit the urban poor hard based on a study that said poor urban neighbourhoods are more vulnerable to the extended effects of heat.
People in densely built, low-income neighbourhoods, with no open green spaces, remain unsheltered from heat even at night. As heat action plans evolve for a few Indian cities, they should take into account thermal indices, not just temperature thresholds, recommends the study.
The south India state of Kerala, which boasted steady monsoons and salubrious climate, grappled with a deluge in August, 2019, a repeat of the devastating floods that killed over 300 people, exactly a year ago.
Floods in Kaziranga National Park, home to the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinos, is considered a necessary evil for its ecology. Floods killed nearly 200 animals in 2019 as the Brahmaputra river broke its banks.
Mongabay-India’s Managing Editor S. Gopikrishna Warrier analysed the calendrical reliability of the Indian monsoon that has changed over the past few years, impacting agriculture and in turn, the economy. While the awareness of the issue is reflected in national-level policy, to develop effective policy plans it is necessary to have models that project scenarios at smaller scales – at state, district and location levels.
Adult rhinos with a calf at a highland during flood at Kaziranga National Park in Bagori range of Nagaon district of Assam, India. Photo by Diganta Talukdar/Wikimedia Commons.
 
In just four years (2014-2017), over 5,800 people and thousands of animals in India have lost their lives to “extremes of temperature, rainfall and tropical cyclones.” Increase in frequency and intensity of such disasters related to climate change impacts on the weather systems is a serious concern, notes the draft of India’s report to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The delayed onset and withdrawal of Indian monsoon and cyclone Fani were among the “high impact” events of 2019, the World Meteorological Organisation provisional statement on the State of the Global Climate said. The strong monsoon also impacted coal production and consumption in the country, where emissions are projected to rise by 1.8 percent in 2019, considerably lower than in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Budget (GCB) report.
If we do not take urgent climate action now, then we are heading for a temperature increase of more than three degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with ever more harmful impacts on human wellbeing, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned.
 
Scientists from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements have used freely available images from the satellite Sentinel-1, in combination with the open-source tool Google Earth Engine, to develop maps of the recent Assam and Bihar floods. Using this as an illustrative example, they call for using such technologies to aid search and rescue missions during disasters, an important element of disaster preparedness.
Women in a migrant fishing community in Odisha have created a resilience fund to shield themselves from disasters in the aftermath of cyclone Fani. Parts along the Odisha coast are vulnerable to cyclones, erosion and sea-level rise. Mapping resilience of women-led households and learning from their behaviour can provide insights to prepare better for the future.
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