The El Nino weather pattern will bring a hotter and drier climate across Thailand in the coming months, say climate experts who warn of worse to come due to climate change.
Even though very hot and humid weather is expected at this time of year, heatwaves during this summer have been more extreme than anticipated, with a new high-temperature record of 45.4 degrees Celsius being measured in Tak on Saturday, breaking the previous record of 44.6 degrees Celsius in Mae Hong Son from April 28, 2016.
In response, experts have called on Thai authorities to urgently respond to the issue as more than 80% of the population has already been affected by the increasing health threats from unbearably hot weather and water shortages.
Asst Prof Witsanu Attavanich said the public must prepare for prolonged droughts and extreme heat throughout the year.
An agricultural economics and climate change expert at the Economics Department of Kasetsart University, Asst Prof Witsanu said what the kingdom is experiencing is due to human-induced climate change.
He said the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities had been gradually raising the global mean temperature since the industrial revolution, increasing the prevalence of extreme heat in Thailand.
Even though the summer heat in Thailand normally subsides with increasing rainfall when the monsoon season arrives around mid-May, he said it is highly likely that this year's extreme heat will continue even after summer ends due to the warming effects of the developing El Nino phenomenon.
Witsanu: People must prepare for droughts
According to the weather projections by International Research Institute for Climate Society (IRI) and the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he said there is a 62% possibility that the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle will shift from neutral phase toward El Nino phase sometime between May and July.
"The ENSO cycle in the Pacific Ocean is another major climate factor that is highly influential to the weather condition in Thailand, as when the ENSO cycle shifts toward a warm El Nino phase, it will result in warmer and more arid conditions in the Asia-Pacific," he said.
"Conversely, the La Nina phase will lead to cooler and more intense rainfall in this region."
Therefore, he said it is expected that there will be less rain this rainy season to replenish the water sources and cool down the weather. Since it is still unknown when the El Nino phase will conclude, he warned that the country might encounter over a year of prolonged hot and dry conditions.
He said farmers would be heavily affected by this weather pattern since they are directly exposed to extreme heat due to their labour in the fields, while their crops are also endangered by water shortage.
"As it is still unknown when the upcoming El Nino phenomenon will end, I strongly suggest the authorities prudently plan on how to protect the people from extreme heat and ensure appropriate management of water resources during the hot and dry months ahead," he said.
Asst Prof Witsanu also highlighted how international scientific circles are concerned that El Nino will accelerate the impacts of human-induced climate change and cause the global mean temperature to rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
According to the Paris Agreement, the international community agreed upon the global climate change mitigation target to limit global warming within a 1.5-degree Celsius threshold to protect more than 3 billion people worldwide from feared climate disasters.
Chief of the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Centre, Dr Thiravat Hemachudha, also raised concerns about Thailand's climate becoming hotter.
Dr Thiravat said that more people would be exposed to heat stroke, which can be deadly.
As increasing parts of Thailand encounter longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat over 40 degrees Celsius, he said he saw an increase in the number of people who have died from heat stroke in recent years.
He explained that heat stroke mostly occurs in hot and humid weather. If the body cannot regulate the internal temperature, the body's core temperature will go beyond 40 degrees Celsius, which can seriously damage bodily functions and lead to permanent disability or death.
"Heat stroke not only threatens those who have underlining health issues, the elderly, and young children," he said. "Healthy adults can also fall victim to heat-related illnesses, so we should be more conscious about the risks of overheating."
Thiravat: Increased risk of heat stroke
Tara Buakamsri, Thailand Country Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said this year's sizzling summer is a clear result of climate change.
Citing Berkeley Earth's study on long-term temperature changes in Thailand, Mr Tara said the annual average temperature in Thailand had gradually risen since records were first kept in 1840.
Thailand's mean temperature increased by up to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is a larger increase than the average rise of global temperature of 1.3 degrees Celsius, Mr Tara said.
"A 1-degree change seems very small, but when considering complex weather variability in reality, only a degree of mean temperature change is significant enough to warm up the weather in some areas by several degrees and contribute to gigantic changes in the global climate system," he said.
Mr Tara cited a 2019 article published in PNAS Nexus journal, which revealed that the annual mean temperature of Thailand will increase from the current average of 26 degrees Celsius to over 29 degrees Celsius by 2070.
He said this is on the same level as the annual mean temperature of the Sahara Desert if nothing is done to actively cut down greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.
Under such circumstances, Thailand will regularly face extreme heatwaves, making most of the country unsuitable for living without air conditioning.
"Even though Thai people are familiar with a hot climate, such heat, over 40 degrees Celsius, can cause serious health issues from overheating, especially given Thailand's relatively high humidity, which can accelerate the heat index and makes it feel hotter," he said.
Mr Tara called on the authorities and policymakers to prioritise preparing the country to cope with the approaching climate challenges and take meaningful action towards mitigating climate change.
Tara: Mean temperature is on the rise