Deadly Dust Storms Are Smothering India

Intense weather has battered South Asia this week. After what was likely the hottest April temperature recorded in the world struck Pakistan at the start of the week, violent dust storms swept across Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, states in northwest India, on Wednesday.

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The storms left at least 100 dead and toppled 8,000 electricity poles. Powerful winds, which the New York Times reports topped 100 mph, whipped up the dust, reducing visibility to near zero. New Delhi also had to deal with blowing sand and dust on Wednesday, but with winds only gusting to 42 mph, the city didn’t have it nearly as bad as its neighbors to the west.

In addition to creating blinding conditions, the storms toppled trees into buildings and in some cases, caused walls to collapse on their own. A number of the fatalities occurred because people were asleep at home, unaware of the approaching danger.

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“The storm struck when people were all at home,” Hemant Gera, the state’s secretary for disaster management and relief, told the New York Times. “Mud walls collapsed, burying them under it. In many places, trees were uprooted and people were hit by the trunks and branches, resulting in injuries.”

A man wraps a scarf around his nose as a dust storm envelops the city in New Delhi, India on Wednesday.
A man wraps a scarf around his nose as a dust storm envelops the city in New Delhi, India on Wednesday.
Photo: AP

With power lines down, there have been widespread electricity outages according to CNN, further compounding the misery.

“I’ve been in office for 20 years and this is the worst I’ve seen,” Gera told the BBC.

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The culprit for the deadly conditions was a mixture of the extreme heat that’s been baking the region, and a low pressure system marked by a series of thunderstorms. While not world-record setting like the heat in neighboring Pakistan, temperatures in northwest India has still been well above normal for this time of year, reaching 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Rajasthan on Wednesday.

An area of cyclonic flow—a pattern where air moves inward like water circling the drain—sat off the northwest coast of India. That sucked moist air from the Gulf Oman toward Rajasthan and the other northwest Indian states, forming a line of thunderstorms. Those storms sweeping over the super heated, dry land helped create the violent winds.

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These types of systems are common for this time of year in the region, with about six weeks to go until the average start of the monsoon season. But the intensity of this storm and its timing has caused a catastrophe of growing proportions.

“It can be called a freak incident,” Mahesh Palawat, the chief meteorologist at Skymet Weather, told the Hindustan Times. “Dust storms are usually not this intense nor do these systems cover such a large area.”

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Sweltering, unsettled weather will continue for the region through this weekend. The Indian Meteorological Department issued a warning that dust storms are “very likely” in western Rajasthan on Thursday, and again on Sunday. Gusty winds and thunderstorms are also likely across other locations in northern India.

Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

It will be interesting (depressing as hell, but interesting) to see what kind of effects these extreme weather bouts are having on the indigenous flora and fauna of these areas (or what’s left of them).

If extreme heat is going to be the new normal, we already have a sort of benchmark of what makes up the natural communities in these places - now we can start studying how they become extinct.