The familiar ingredients of a global warming were in place: scorching temperatures, hotter air holding more moisture, extreme weather getting wilder, glaciers melting, people living in peril, and poverty. They combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create relentless rain and deadly floods.
The flooding has all the hallmarks of a climate change catastrophe, but it is too early to formally blame global warming, several scientists told The Associated Press. It happened in a country that did little to cause warming, but continues to get pummeled, just like relentless rain.
“This year, Pakistan has received the highest rainfall in at least three decades. Rainfall so far this year is more than 780% above average levels,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of the Pakistan Climate Change Council. “Extreme weather patterns are becoming more frequent in the region and Pakistan is no exception.”
Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said “it has been a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.”
Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” said Moshin Hafeez, a climate scientist at the Lahore-based International Water Management Institute. Its rain, heat and melting glaciers are all factors of climate change scientists repeatedly warned on.
While scientists point to these classic fingerprints of climate change, they have not yet finished the complex calculations comparing what happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. That study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine how much, if any, climate change is a factor.
The “recent flooding in Pakistan is actually a result of the climate catastrophe… which was coming very big,” said Anjal Prakash, director of research at India’s Bharti Institute for Public Policy. “The type of incessant rain that has occurred…is unprecedented.”
Pakistan is used to monsoons and downpours, but “we expect them to last, usually for three to two months,” said the country’s climate minister, Rehman.
There are usually breaks, he said, and not as much rain: 37.5 centimeters (14.8 inches) falls in a day, almost three times more than the national average over the past three decades. “It’s also not that long. … Eight weeks have passed and we are being told we could see another downpour in September.”
“Clearly, it’s being affected by climate change,” said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
There has been a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas such as Baluchistan and Sindh, leading to extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams have been breached.
The heat has been as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan consistently saw temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Scorching temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) were recorded in places like Jacobabad and Dadu.
Warmer air contains more moisture. about 7% more per degree Celsius (4% per degree Fahrenheit) – and that eventually boils down, in this case to torrents.
Around the world, “intense rain storms are getting more intense,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climatologist at Princeton University. And he said mountains, like those in Pakistan, help shed extra moisture when clouds pass.
Instead of overflowing rivers flooding due to additional rain, Pakistan is hit by another source of flash flooding: extreme heat accelerates long-term glacial melt, and then water rushes down from the Himalayas to Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called Glacial lake outburst floods.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and this affects us,” climate minister Rehman said. “Instead of maintaining their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature. We are watching them melt.”
Not all the problem is climate change.
Pakistan saw similar flooding and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. But the government has not put in place plans to prevent future flooding by avoiding construction and housing in flood-prone areas and riverbeds, said Suleri of the country’s Climate Change Council.
The disaster is hitting a poor country that has contributed relatively little to the global climate problem, scientists and officials said. Since 1959, Pakistan has emitted about 0.4% of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% from the United States and 16.4% from China.
“Those countries that have developed or become rich off of fossil fuels, that are really the problem,” Rehman said. “They are going to have to make a critical decision that the world is reaching a tipping point. We’ve certainly reached that point already because of our geographic location.”
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland. Arasu from Delhi, India. Munir Ahmed contributed from Lahore, India and Aniruddha Gosal from Delhi, India.
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