The cold wave

Experts have blamed climate change and smog for the prolonged cold wave spell in Pakistan, leading to loss of lives and livelihoods

It is February and the winter seems set to go on for few weeks. A cold wave has battered Pakistan, killing more than 100 people across the country. In Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) alone, more than 75 people have died and dozens have been injured following avalanches and extreme rain and snowfall.

Experts from the government and civil society believe that an increase in the intensity and frequency of the cold waves could be the result of man-made climate change and surprisingly high air pollution.

According to the director general of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), Muhammad Riaz, “The impacts of climate change are evident in the current cold wave episode.”

Riaz was speaking at the annual meeting of Upper Indus Basin Network – Pakistan Chapter, a group of environmental experts from the government, civil society and academia to protect the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.

Riaz says that the smog phenomenon has also exacerbated the impacts of the cold wave. “Smog led to the formation of nitrogen dioxide (N02). This NO2 was converted to ozone (O3),” says Muhammad Riaz.

He further adds, “The ozone (O3) formation took place in the Punjab and upper Sindh. It blocked the solar radiation, due to which the day temperature was very close to night temperature.”

“There was hardly a difference in night and day temperatures. This situation persisted for many days and became one of the reasons for sustained cold in Pakistan,” says Riaz.

Muhammad Riaz says, “Another significant factor is the cold air mass that extended to Pakistan, which substantially reduced the temperature.”

Dr Ghulam Rasul, the Regional Programme Manager at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) says, “For the past few decades, the monsoon season has been starting early or late. Its recession, too, remains uncertain. The last two decades happened to be the warmest stretch and climate variability and change highly affected the winter and summer weather patterns.”

Dr Ghulam Rasul looks at the pattern of extreme weather events across the region. “This winter’s abnormal rain in the Middle East and record breaking snow in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the onslaught of a changing climate,” he says.

According to Riaz, “This cold wave is the combination of climate change-induced weather systems and ozone layer formation due to smog.”

Referring to extreme weather events in Balochistan, Riaz says, “The province witnessed the second highest rainfall in 50 years. The intensification of weather systems is due to climate change.”

Dr Ghulam Rasul explains why Pakistan is in the grip of chilling weather. “Usually the track of cold fronts is between 40 and 45N latitude and westerly winds bring rain and snow upto 30N latitude.”

This winter, however, was surprisingly different. “The winter cold fronts this year were running to their lowest southern extent of 25and 30N,” reveals Rasul.

Dr Ghulam Rasul describes the cold front as, “The interaction of cold air mass from the northern polar region and warm air mass from the tropics. The strength of cold front can be measured by the difference in air mass temperature and moisture content.”

“The cold fronts led to heavy downpour, the heavy snowfall on the mountain slopes led to avalanches, resulting in loss of lives and livelihoods,” says the ICIMOD official.

The cold wave clearly reflects the changes in weather patterns. “The dip to this level occurred after several decades. It is reflective of climate change as the cold days are also increasing in many parts of the world as are the hot days,” says Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, a climate change expert based in Islamabad.

The cold wave clearly reflects the changes in weather patterns. “The dip to this level occurred after several decades. It is reflective of climate change as the cold days are also increasing in many parts of the world as are the hot days,” says Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, a climate change expert based in Islamabad.

“This highlights the disturbing pattern of monsoon changes reflecting a change in our eastern and western winds,” says Sheikh.

Sheikh says our infrastructure is not resilient to extreme weather events. “The basic infrastructure to cope with extreme cold is absent in our country,” he says.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh suggests, “Strengthening the capacity of institutions to deal with extreme weather events such as snowfall, rapid and deep decrease in temperature, and running municipal services that can clean roads and provide emergency services to avoid fatalities as in AJK.”

Sheikh calls for climate-smart investments that can help the communities brace increases in temperature changes which is fast becoming a regular phenomenon.

2019 was a turbulent year for the world as a multitude of climate change impacts were experienced everywhere in the world. “2019 was also the second warmest year after 2016 in 150 years of recorded history, which accelerated the melting in the Arctic Ocean. Increase in emissions is affecting the general circulation of the atmosphere and hence the weather patterns,” says Dr Ghulam Rasul.

The cold wave spell severely affected agriculture in Pakistan. “It has increased the threats to our food security and also affected the prices of commodities in the market.” Sheikh adds, “An increase in the prices of fresh vegetables and fruits can be partly attributed to this.”

Sheikh mentions that heavy snowfall disrupted the communication links and the trade in various commodities resulting in a price hike.

The climate anomalies do not just end there. Dr Ghulam Rasul of ICIMOD warns, “Frequent rains and dust storms are expected in April and May, which will most likely hinder the harvesting and threshing of wheat.” He says an effective weather advisory service for farmers can help reduce harvest losses.

Science has confirmed that climate change is affecting lives and livelihoods in Pakistan. The government should devise inclusive policies to protect the poorest of the poor, and through state-of-the-art early warning systems predict such extreme weather events.


The writer is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a masters in international journalism from Cardiff University. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). 
He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached   via [email protected] 

Experts blame climate change, smog for prolonged cold wave spell in Pakistan