The term "Global warming" was first used during the fourth quarter of the last century, but the phenomenon that it refers to had been noticed by scientists much earlier. Even after it was noticed, for a long time it was referred to as "inadvertent climate modification" although it was known that human beings as a species were capable of affecting the earth's climate. It has finally been almost universally accepted that the earth is becoming warmer as a direct consequence of our modern way of life.
Finally, the problem has been recognized and efforts are on to find a global consensus on how to address it. However, whatever we do now will only slow down the process in the foreseeable future; reversing it would take a long time, if at all it can be achieved. Therefore, this planet we live on will go on getting steadily warmer for many years. Preoccupied as we are with trying to stop global warming, the significance of this fact seems to have eluded our attention.
One of the most worrisome aspects of global warming is that as the earth becomes warmer overall, other facets of its climate patterns will also change. Extreme temperatures everywhere will rise. The warmer seasons will start earlier and last longer. Parts of the earth which had hitherto not experienced extreme temperatures would do so. All of these will have severe ecological, socio-economic and physical repercussions.
In India, for example, places which have always experienced heat waves in summer will see heat waves that are greater in intensity as well as duration. This will make the country more vulnerable because a large proportion of population in India lives without sufficient access to water, electricity and primary health facilities. Plants and animals will find it harder to survive through to the end of the summer. The existing healthcare infrastructure will collapse under the strain of overwhelming demand for treatment for ailments as well as emergency services.
Moreover, parts of our country that have never been exposed to heat wave conditions will experience conditions that they are unfamiliar with. They will be completely un-prepared and un-equipped to deal with such situations. Ways of life that have been existed and evolved over countless years will lose the very foundations on which they have been built: the characteristics of the environment which cradled them.
It is essential, therefore, to focus on climate extremes such as heat waves and invest in understanding and preparing for them. As things stand, however, even as the scientific understanding of human-induced climatic change grows, significant gaps yawn in the scientific community's understanding of climate extremes. This is largely due to the fact that warming is a global phenomenon whereas extremes are local ones.
There are several methods of projection global and regional temperatures. Atmospheric and Ocean Coupled General Circulation Models (AOGCM), popularly referred as global climate models, is one such tool to project global and regional temperatures. On the global scale these are all quite effective for the purposes that they are used, but not for monitoring or understanding localized climate patterns, especially extremes.
Statistical methods and data mining based tools would be more effective in this context. In order to be fully effective, however, they need to have extensive and exhaustive data available. Despite significant progress made in recent years, however, our ability to establish credible links between climate variations, climate change and climate extremes is still not enough robust enough. A great deal of work needs to be done to generate predictive insights and address the knowledge gaps.
At the IITB-Monash Research Academy in Mumbai, research scholar Kamal Kumar Murari has been doing just that. Guided by Dr. Subimal Ghosh of IIT, Mumbai, and Dr. Edoardo Daly of Monash University, Kamal has been combining climate models with statistical techniques for 1) more accurate characterization of climate extremes and 2) improving projections by comprehensive assessment of uncertainties.
One of the things that sets Kamal's work apart is that it is aligned towards the local ground realities in terms of demographics, topography, infrastructure, etc. The specific aim of the study is to provide planners, policy makers as well as the general public with the kind of information that can be a powerful enabler to understand and deal with heat extremes as a natural disaster.
"Our results point to the necessity for further research on the adverse effects of the heat waves of the future," says Kamal. "Policies will have to be formulated to cope with their impact on the population. With every passing year, they will occur earlier in the year affect larger areas of India, including Southern India. Worryingly, heat waves are not seriously considered as a disaster, at present".
The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a Joint Venture between the IIT Bombay, India and Monash University, Australia. Opened in 2008, the IITB-Monash Research Academy operates a graduate research program located in Mumbai that aims at enhancing research collaborations between Australia and India. Students study for a dually-badged PhD from both institutions, and spend time during their research in both India and Australia.
Research scholar: Kamal Kumar Murari, IITB-Monash Research Academy
Project title: Regional scale projections of intensification of heat wave characteristics for 21 century India
Supervisors: Dr. Subimal Ghosh (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay) and Dr. Edoardo Daly ( Monash University)
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