Wednesday night a massive dust storm converged over northwest India leaving 127 dead 200 injured, this catastrophe was the ‘perfect storm’ as a number of weather systems coalesced to produce a chain of thunderstorms over a large area, many people were either injured or killed as the intensity of the storm damaged buildings.
The storm originated in the desert area of North West India, as higher surface temperatures combined with a low level cyclonic movement took warm air into the atmosphere, taking with it dust and sand, creating a dust storm. In this instance it met with a western disturbance over Eastern Europe and high winds from the Bay of Bengal which allowed the updraught of warm air to take up moisture into the atmosphere to form dense thunderclouds.
As the warm air entered the atmosphere the water condensed to form dense clouds and rain. As it rained it created a downdraught of wind, the downdraught can create another updraught, this created a chain of thunderstorms as they were continuously formed in a positive feedback loop. The presence of warm dry air through the dust storm may have made the storm more powerful.
“It can be called a freak incident,” Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist at Skymet Weather, a private forecaster, said. “Dust storms are usually not this intense nor do these systems cover such a large area.” (1)
“In past years, fatalities from the dust storms rarely caused more than a dozen fatalities. According to local reports, many of the fatalities occurred when intense wind knocked over large structures, killing or injuring those in its way.” (2)
The storm produced strong downbursts of wind which are responsible for most of the the death and destruction and the strong winds toppled buildings and walls as wind speeds are estimated to have been as high as 132 km per hour.
“Indian officials say the main reason the most recent dust storms were so catastrophic was because of the time when the strongest winds hit – at night, as people were sleeping indoors. Most of 125 reported deaths were because of the collapse of buildings and other structures.” (3)
Some villages had little or no warning of the impending extreme weather event and many areas are now without electricity and water following the disaster.
This latest episode follows that of another dust storm on the 11th April that killed 19, and left the Taj Mahal damaged as two minarets fell in strong winds.
The dust storm that hit can be linked to climate change, as the rising temperatures and instability produced by global warming is causing extreme weather events to become more frequent and severe, this storm was no exception.
“Local thunderstorm formation is impacted by temperatures,” Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said. “All over India, temperatures are abnormally high, even if they are not the drivers, they will aggravate the situation by causing the atmosphere to become more unstable“ (1)
The death toll was highest in the rural areas of India, which incidentally are also among the poorest. The ‘official’ poverty rate in India at the time of the latest figures is 29.5% with some 363 million living on less than $2.40 per day. The greatest cause of death and injury in this storm was engulfment and crush injury through falling walls and roofs through lightning strikes, high winds along with falling trees and other debris. The death toll would not be as high if it weren’t for those are forced to live in substandard housing through poverty.
If it could be said to be a ‘perfect storm’ through the convergence of various weather systems, we would be remiss to ignore the social conditions which are to blame for this mass suffering, the convergence of social factors, namely anthropogenic climate change and lack of access to decent housing through absolute poverty.
1. Hindustan Times: This is what caused the ‘freak’ dust storm that killed more than 100 in North, West India
2. National Geographic: Why this dust storm in India turned deadly
3. BBC: Why were India’s dust storms so deadly?