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EXPLAINER: Pakistan’s deadly floods have warming characteristics

The familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place: scorching temperatures, warmer air containing more moisture, extreme weather conditions becoming wilder, melting glaciers, people living in danger and poverty. They combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create incessant rain and deadly floods.

The flooding has all the hallmarks of a climate change disaster, but it’s too early to officially blame global warming, several scientists told The Associated Press. It happened in a country that has done little to cause warming, but continues to be affected, as is the incessant rain.

“This year, Pakistan received the highest rainfall in at least three decades. Rainfall so far this year is more than 780% above average,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and fellow of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council. “Extreme weather is becoming more common in the region and Pakistan is no exception.”

Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said “this has been a disaster on an unprecedented scale”.

Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” said Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climatologist at the International Water Management Institute. Its rains, heat and melting glaciers are all factors in climate change repeatedly warned on.

While scientists point to these classic fingerprints of climate change, they have yet to complete the complex calculations that compare what happened in Pakistan to what would happen in a world without warming. This study, expected in a few weeks, will formally determine to what extent climate change is a factor, if at all.

The “recent flood in Pakistan is actually the result of the climatic disaster… which was shaping up to be very significant,” said Anjal Prakash, research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. “The kind of incessant rain that has happened…has been unprecedented.”

Pakistan is used to monsoons and showers, but “we expect them to be spread out, usually over three or two months,” said the country’s climate minister, Rehman.

There are usually breaks, she said, and less rain — 37.5 centimeters (14.8 inches) fall in a day, nearly three times more than the national average for the past three decades. “It’s also not that prolonged. … It’s been eight weeks and we’re told we could see another downpour in September.

“Obviously it’s fueled by climate change,” said Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.

There was a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas like Balochistan and Sindh, which caused extreme flooding, Hafeez said. At least 20 dams were broken.

The heat was as relentless as the rain. In May, Pakistan constantly saw temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Scorching temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) have been recorded in places like Jacobabad and Dadu.

Warmer air holds more moisture — about 7% more per degree Celsius (4% per degree Fahrenheit) – and it eventually drops, in this case in torrents.

Around the world, “intense rainstorms are getting more and more intense,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climatologist at Princeton University. And he said mountains, like those in Pakistan, help extract extra moisture as clouds pass.

Instead of just swollen rivers flooded with additional rains, Pakistan is hit by another source of flash floods: extreme heat accelerates long-term glacier melt, then water descends from the Himalayas into Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called glacial lake overflow floods.

“We have the greatest number of glaciers outside of the polar region, and that affects us,” Climate Minister Rehman said. “Instead of keeping their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature. We see them melting.

Climate change is not the only problem.

Pakistan experienced similar floods and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people. But the government has failed to implement plans to prevent future flooding by stopping construction and homes 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% heat-trapping carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% in the United States and 16.4% in China.

“These countries that grew or got rich on fossil fuels, which are really the problem,” Rehman said. “They are going to have to make a critical decision as the world comes to a tipping point. We have certainly already reached this point due to our geographical location.

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Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland and Arasu from New Delhi. AP journalists Munir Ahmed in Lahore, Pakistan, and Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears and Sibi Arasu at @sibi123.

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