As I write, I am fearfully watching the news from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Cyclone Phailin, the strongest in more than a decade, looks set to reach landfall in the next hour.
Already early strong winds have been lashing the coastal areas over the last day, with seven districts having lost power. More than four lakh people have been evacuated by the authorities. I am desperately hoping they are out of harm’s way. The authorities have worked well to get some many people away.
Whatever happens, we know that their lives will be disrupted, that homes and crops will be lost, and some infrastructure out of operation for an extended period.
While my immediate fears are for the safety of the people in that region, I worry too about Cyclone Phailin being a harbinger of more such devastation in the future. Scientists have seen a significant trend in the increase in the rate and intensification of cyclones into severe cyclones over Indian seas – a trend that has been very sharp for the recent decades.
This cyclone comes just two weeks after the world’s scientists met with governments in Stockholm, Sweden, to report on the latest state of climate change science. They reported that it is now virtually certain that human influence has warmed the global climate system. This means primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
Climate change is now changing the weather. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be. The past few years have been marked by unusually severe extreme weather characteristic of climate change.
Sea-surface temperatures across the tropics have risen along with global temperature over the last 100 years and are expected to warm further in the next century. All else being equal, warmer oceans can support stronger hurricanes.
Extra heat in the air and oceans, as a result of global warming, is a form of energy, and storms are driven by such energy. Even a small increase in the ocean's warmth can turn tropical disturbances into hurricanes or pump up an existing storm's power and add to its rain fall. Sea surface temperatures have risen by 0.5–0.6 °C since the 1950s, leading to 4% more water vapour in the atmosphere over oceans since the 1970s. The resulting warmer and moister air is likely to be boosting rainfall from hurricanes by around 8%.
The positive message from the IPCC was that the future of more events like Phailin can still be avoided. My Greenpeace colleague Stephanie Tunmore was in Stockholm. She said, “The strongest take away from this report is that we still have a choice. Either we continue to stoke the fires of climate change by burning fossil fuels, or we turn a different corner and capitalise on the renewable energy breakthrough that has already begun. There’s a better future than the one we’re currently facing and it’s ours if we want it.”
For now, my hopes and prayers are for the safety of people threatened by Phailin. But beyond, we in Greenpeace will do everything in our power to prevent greater climate change intensifying the threat to Indian coastal communities.
Samit Aich is Executive Director with Greenpeace India.
- VARIABILITY AND TREND IN THE CYCLONIC STORMS OVER NORTH INDIAN OCEAN http://www.ptc-wmoescap.org/AdhocGroupAttachments/10_VARIABILITY%20AND%20TREND%20IN%20THE%20CYCLONIC%20STORMS.pdf
- IPCC WG1, Technical Summary, page 39
- Trenberth et al, (2007) Observations: surface and atmospheric climate change. Climate Change 2007. The physical science basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 235–336