Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Epic Heat Disaster In India Is Killing Thousands

A woman in India gets relief from a fan
during that country's current record
breaking heat wave  
Heat waves lack the dramatic optics of disasters such as tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, but they can often be among the worlds deadliest calamities.

Such is the case now in India and surrounding nations as a relentless heat wave grinds on. It's not known exactly how many people have died so far, but the number has to be in the thousands at least.

Last year, 2,400 or so people died in heat waves across India. This year, the heat is worse.

We know at least 340 people have died of the heat around New Delhi, and hospitals are overwhelmed with people suffering from heat-related injuries and illnesses.

It's amazing that a disaster has killed perhaps thousands of people and it's not in the top headlines of news organizations.

Then again, as I said, heat waves lack optics, and the deaths are not dramatic looking. Just tragic.

Heat waves are the neutron bomb of weather disasters: All the houses and buildings remain intact, but a lot of people die.

We do know this heat wave in India is one for the record books. The nation last week recorded its hottest temperature on record, with a reading of 124 degrees.

As almost all of us know from experience,  heat waves feel worse, are more draining and are more dangerous when the humidity is high.

The dew point temperature is a good way to measure how humidity feels. The dew point is the always the same or lower than the actual temperature and is the level at which moisture in the atmosphere would condense into fog or precipitation.

To most Americans, it begins to feel a bit humid when the dew point gets to around 60. It feels pretty damn oppressive when the dew point is 70.

In parts of India, dew points have been approaching or even exceeding an incredible 90 degrees. This is near the limit of what humans can survive, even if they're not exerting themselves and getting enough water.

As we all well know, many Indians have no access to electricity, never mind air conditioning, so this is clearly a dangerous situation.

Not all the deaths in India are due to the heat. The scorching weather is accompanied by a huge drought. Some farmers are committing suicide on their parched lands rather than give up and be forced to live in urban shantytowns.

Even for those who do have access to cooling - and jobs -  things are weird. In one city, people trying to cross streets find themselves stuck to the melting asphalt. Yes, melting asphalt.

Of course there have always been heat waves and people have always died during them. But as the planet warms, some hot spells are getting longer and more intense than they have in the past, which spells trouble.

Especially when they hit in areas that don't always have hot weather, like India

Heat waves like this one have killed lots of people in various parts of the world. An unprecedented European heat wave in 2003 killed an estimated 20,000 people. 

In 2010 as many as 50,000 people died from heat stress and respiratory illnesses during an never-before seen Russian heat wave.

Heat waves are usually more likely to kill ill and elderly people, which I think is another reason why these disasters don't attract headlines.

However, the public ought to be protected, and know what to do to protect themselves during intense heat waves, just as there are rules to protect ourselves from tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

It's a cliche, but it's true: The life you save might be your own.

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