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Manipur Hailstorm: Extreme Weather Events Reinforce Climate Change Discourses


Central Imphal was hit by an unannounced and unprecedented hailstorm on Sunday leading to a trail of destruction in almost all of the valley districts in the Manipur floodplains. where tin-roofing were punctured violently by hailstorm pellets as large as one inch and more, with palm-size pellets seen in pockets of Bishnupur district.

By Salam Rajesh

Sunday (May 5, 2024) afternoon’s unprecedented hailstorm in the central Manipur valley areas that left a trail of awe and destruction in its wake re-invokes the pervasive issue of climate change discourses at all levels — local, subnational, national, regional and global, a subject matter that however, has not been seriously discussed at state-policy level in Manipur all through these years.

If it is any consolation, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)’s State of the Climate in Asia 2023 report says it very clearly: Over fifty years of data in Asia confirms the need for greater disaster risk reduction intervention in the region. From 1970 to 2021, there were as many as 3,612 disasters   attributed to weather, climate and water extremes, with 9,84,263 deaths and USD 1.4 trillion in economic losses (based on the analysis of disaster data from EM-DAT).

“Between 1970 and 2021, the region accounted for 47% of all reported deaths worldwide, with tropical cyclones being the leading cause of reported deaths.”

Central Imphal was hit by an unannounced and unprecedented hailstorm on Sunday leading to a trail of destruction in almost all of the valley districts in the Manipur floodplains, where tin-roofing were punctured violently by hailstorm pellets as large as one inch and more, with palm-size pellets seen in pockets of Bishnupur district. Trees were uprooted and semi-pucca houses with tin-roofing were blown apart in the near-hour-long storm with around 10 minutes of pebble and stone-size hail pelting causing havoc left and right.

The terminology ‘extreme weather event’ is becoming the norm today, randomly being used by scientists, citizen scientists and the common masses to discuss unprecedented cases of weather events unlike before. So, what is this all about?

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) dwelling on the issue says that in many of the regions in the Indian subcontinent, it is not just the rising temperatures that are causing discomfort, it is also the increased relative humidity levels that indicate the presence of heat-trapping moisture in the atmosphere which is adding spice to the issue.

The IMD has earlier indicated that hot and humid weather and warm night conditions in several places across India during the past months were increasingly evident.  When the moisture levels in the atmosphere are high, the air becomes saturated and cannot hold more water vapour, and this increases the felt ambient temperature of an area and thereby leads to less sweating in humans and animals, it said.

The process increases the internal body temperatures as there is no way for heat to escape, and this increases discomfort to humans. When such conditions prevail for a prolonged period of time, it impacts human health, in particular the heart and brain, and this can be fatal. The question raised is why are there so much of moisture in the atmosphere currently.

Talking to the Down To Earth magazine recently, climate scientist and former director-general of the IMD, KJ Ramesh observed that, “There are two huge anticyclones over the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal currently, which are bringing winds on shore to Odisha and West Bengal and to the Konkan region of Maharashtra”.

“Anticyclones are regions of high atmospheric pressure where the winds blow in a downward sinking motion, compress and heat up. They cause heat waves by making winds move in a downward direction and blocking other weather systems that may dissipate heat waves. They are common over India during the pre-monsoon period. These winds are pumping moisture from the sea onto land, increasing the relative humidity levels even in the interior regions”.

The WMO report explains the process as being influenced by several modes of natural variability in the climate system, often referred to as climate patterns or climate modes, which affect weather and climate at timescales ranging from days to months, and even decades. The most relevant patterns for Asia are the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), and the Asian Monsoon, according to the WMO.

El Niño event was linked to an anomalously hot and dry condition in South Asia during summer last year, being associated with a weaker-than-normal Asian summer monsoon. The WMO report stated that during August last year, India experienced a record-high monthly mean temperature as well as an unprecedented rainfall deficit for that month. Below-normal rainfall during the Indian summer monsoon season led to a precipitation deficit in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Indian summer monsoon seasonal rainfall averaged over India from June to September, was about 6% below the 1971-2000 average, inducing conditions of drought in several pockets of the country.

At the same time, too, several extreme precipitation events took place last year concurrently. During June and July 2023, several flood and storm events resulted in at least 599 reported deaths across India, Pakistan and Nepal due to flooding, landslides and lightning. July and August witnessed landslides in India due to intense monsoon rains. In August of 2023, widespread floods and landslides struck multiple states in India, including Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, claiming 25 lives and causing extensive damage to infrastructure and agriculture.

The extremities were there all too evident. The two extremities, that is, extreme heat events and extreme rainfall events ran almost parallel, impacting many parts of the country where one part was experiencing heat waves and drought conditions while another part was experiencing floods and landslides.

These extremities renew the debate on how far the discourses on climate change are being seriously dealt with in the country, and how serious are the leaderships over this issue. The issue filters down to the state level where the impact of the unprecedented hailstorm on Sunday brings up the question of how far the State is prepared with Early Warning Systems to forewarn the residents of impending extreme weather events, considering that the IMD had issued yellow and orange alerts for the State in advance.

At the moment, it does appear that damage repairing is the only option for the State in the absence of a solid Early Warning System (EWS) in place. The EWS is to be followed with an evacuation process for safety with the State Disaster Units in place for any eventuality, along with provisioning food and medical supplies. It is debatable how far the State is prepared with these systems to minimize loss of lives and properties or to act swiftly in case of disasters.

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