Asia Is Warming Faster Than the Global Average, Warns WMO

A new report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warns that the Asian continent is the world’s most disaster-prone region, and extreme heat is becoming more severe. 

The warming trend in Asia has nearly doubled over the last three decades, the UN’s meteorological agency reports. In its State of the Climate in Asia 2023, the WMO shows how this has happened largely in the north in places like Siberia, China and Japan. 

Despite the growing health risks posed by extreme heat, heat-related mortality is frequently not reported. While extreme heat is becoming more severe, the highest number of casualties and economic losses were caused by floods and storms. 

Warmer seas, heavier rainfall 

Warming of the upper ocean (0m–700m) is particularly strong in the North-Western Arabian Sea, the Philippine Sea and the seas east of Japan – more than three times faster than the global average. Warmer oceans tend to make cyclones more powerful and unpredictable. Cyclone Mocha, which hit Bangladesh and Myanmar last year, was the strongest cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in the last decade. It touched speeds of 280 km per hour and rapidly intensified in one day. 

While the number of named tropical cyclones, 17, over the western North Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, was below average, the rainfall in China, Japan, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea was record-breaking. Hong Kong recorded an hourly rainfall total of 158.1 mm on 7 September 2023, the highest since records began in 1884.

Several stations in Vietnam observed record-breaking daily rainfall amounts in October. In West Asia too there was heavy rainfall and flooding in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

Of 79 disasters analysed, most were related to flood and storm events, with more than 2,000 fatalities and nine million people directly affected

“The report’s conclusions are sobering. Many countries in the region experienced their hottest year on record in 2023, along with a barrage of extreme conditions, from droughts and heatwaves to floods and storms. Climate change exacerbated the frequency and severity of such events, profoundly impacting societies, economies, and, most importantly, human lives and the environment that we live in,” said WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo.

The report covers a vast geographical expanse, from the Arabian desert to the Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle. This sea is identified as a climate change hotspot. Higher ocean temperature impacts the sea-ice cover which melts and in turn, increases temperatures further because darker sea surfaces can absorb more solar energy than the highly reflective sea-ice. The reduction in sea ice has led to controversial moves by several countries (Russia, Norway and others) to exploit the region particularly as it allows for easier shipping routes. 

Particularly high average temperatures were recorded from western Siberia to central Asia and from eastern China to Japan. Source: WMO State of the Climate in Asia 2023

Extreme heat becoming severe 

The heat, however, is a bigger challenge than water-related hazards. Overall, Asia’s annual mean, near-surface temperature last year was the second highest on record at 0.91°C above the 1991-2020 average, and 1.87° above the 1961-1990 average. The global average temperature last year was 1.45°C above the pre-industrial era, very close to the 1.5° threshold recognised by the Paris Agreement. However, for Asia, WMO doesn’t use that pre-Industrialisation baseline because of insufficient data. 

Many parts of Asia experienced extreme heat events and record-breaking heat in 2023. Japan experienced its hottest summer on record. China experienced 14 high-temperature events in summer, with six stations breaking their temperature records. In India, severe heatwaves in April and June resulted in about 110 reported fatalities due to heatstroke. However, this is likely to be an underestimation as heat-related deaths are frequently not reported. 

Tackle climate change and air pollution together

WMO’s report terms Asia the world’s most diaster-prone region. Making many communities here a lot more vulnerable is the high level of air pollution across the continent. In South Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India are the three most polluted countries in the world, and global warming and pollution is linked, officials say. 

“Air pollution and climate change are interrelated in that if you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then you also help tackle air pollution. There is also a close link between heatwaves, ozone pollution and poor air quality. So the message is that we need to tackle both together,” a WMO spokesperson told Health Policy Watch

At the heart of Asia lies the largest volume of ice outside the polar regions. The Tibetan Plateau contains approximately 100,000 square kilometres of glaciers. Most have been retreating for decades and at an accelerating rate. Melting glaciers threaten future water security

Twenty out of 22 observed glaciers in the High Mountain Asia region showed continued mass loss. One of the glaciers, Urumqi Glacier No 1, in Eastern Tien Shan, recorded its second-highest negative mass balance during 2022-23 since measurements began in 1959.

Permafrost, which is soil that continuously remains below 0° for two or more years, is thawing rapidly across northern Asia. As it melts, it can release methane a greenhouse gas that traps more heat in the short term than carbon dioxide

Overview of reported disasters in 2023 associated with hydro-meteorological hazards in the Asia region. Source: WMO State of the Climate in Asia 2023

Call for urgent, tailored action

With emissions of greenhouse gases not being cut fast enough, the world is almost certainly going to cross the threshold of 1.5° above pre-industrial times. Beyond that limit, climate scientists project more intense, frequent, and unpredictable extreme weather events with devastating consequences on life. 

The WMO has flagged an “urgent” need for what it calls tailored support and services to effectively mitigate rising disaster risks. What this means is more than general weather forecasts, the spokesperson told HPW. An example would be a heat-health early warning aimed at health professionals, or an impact-based forecast not just of how much rainfall but what the impact will be in terms of flooding in an urban area.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.