Snowless winter, surprise rain, unusual cold wave: What is up with Pakistan’s weather?

Rising temperatures, rapid glacial melts and warming oceans are triggering a host of climate-related events.
Published March 25, 2024

When Mohammad Hasan returned to his hometown in Gilgit-Baltistan last month, he was welcomed by a parched Skardu gasping for precipitation. The peaks encircling the town, usually hidden under a blanket of snow, looked livid with thirst.

In neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ‘hotspots’ Malam Jabba, Swat and Kalam also failed to transition from brown to white. The cities’ otherwise crowded streets only sported desperate shopkeepers cajoling disappointed tourists.

Snow and rain had eluded the northern areas in the peak of winter.

On the other hand, down south, floods wreaked havoc in Balochistan — that too in February. Gwadar received over 2,200 millimetres of rain within a span of just a few days, while other areas of the province recorded freezing temperatures.

In the southeast, an ‘unusual’ cold wave left Sindh shivering. Karachi saw temperatures going down to 11 degrees Celsius earlier this month, recording the coldest-ever March since 1979.

Just three months into 2024, Pakistan already seems to be treading a path of extremities (no, I am not talking about the post-election situation). So what is making the weather bipolar?

Snow deficit

Across Pakistan, January generally qualifies as the coldest month of the year and sees the highest amount of rain or snowfall, particularly in the upper regions. But in KP and GB, this year brought a “big and rare snow deficit”.

“By this time of the year (December-January), the streets should have been covered with seven to eight feet of snow,” said Hasan, a travel photographer. Instead, what he met were dry weather and dust pollution.

The average snowfall across the country during these months is 47.5 inches. But this year was very different because January was coming to an end and Pakistan had only received one to two inches of snow.

While the prolonged dry spell in both KP and GB finally broke in the beginning of February, Chief Meteorologist Sardar Sarfraz said these new patterns were nothing less than “alarming”.

“Snowfall on the mountains keeps the flow in rivers and streams going during spring and summers,” he told, explaining that this water does not just help with domestic use but also produces electricity, helps with irrigation and feeds dams.

The snow in January, he continued, is solid, stagnant and lasts longer than other months. “The lifetime of the snowfall in February and March is less and it melts faster,” Sarfraz said.

This means that the country may face a water and food shortage this year. But how?

The journey of water from up north down to the plains of Punjab and further south towards the Indus Delta is fed by snowmelts. For instance, water from the mountains of Kashmir feeds the Mangla and Tarbela dams, while the Indus River travels all the way from GB to the Kotri Barrage in Jamshoro.

“If the water flow is not good, these water expeditions will be affected and that would in turn harm irrigation,” Sarfraz elaborated. For an agro-based country like ours, this poses a major risk.

Moreover, the economy of KP and GB primarily thrives on tourism. Every year, people from across the country, throng up to Naran, Kaghan, Hunza and other areas only to enjoy winters.

But many of those who made the tiring journey up north this year came back disheartened, and the reason was just one: no snow. Ali Sheikh, a Rawalpindi-based traveller, said the ski resorts of Malam Jabba and Kalam, once packed with tourists, were empty in January.

“It seemed as if a strange drought had hit these areas,” he recalled.

This “drought” had hit both the mountains and the locals alike. Shopkeepers and vendors who depend on tourists for their livelihood had to fend for themselves through alternative means.

Dr Tariq Rauf, a PhD scholar who works on disaster management in Kohistan, blamed seasonal shifts for these weather patterns. He explained that the number of seasons over the past several years, even up north, has reduced to just two — summer and winter.

“It is either the monsoon rains or the winter landslides. There is nothing in between,” he told, explaining that average temperatures have increased. “Even in winters, temperatures are relatively warmer, which is forcing the glaciers to melt rapidly.

“And when these glaciers melt at such a pace, they bring floods — similar to or worse than the 2022 disaster.”

Gwadar deluge

More than 1,400 kilometres to the south, just as February came to a close, a storm hit Balochistan. Record-breaking rains ravaged several areas of the province, especially Gwadar — a city that the government boasts for its development and overseas investment — and neighbouring towns, and triggered floods.

“It rained for two consecutive days,” said Muhammad Bizenjo, a resident. “Our houses were flooded. The furniture in my house was swimming in waist-high water.”

Next door, the walls of Yaqoob’s room had caved in, forcing him to spend the night on the roof of their katcha makaan. “At 3am, when there was no other option, I waded to my sister’s house and have been living here with my wife and children ever since,” the 34-year-old government employee said.

The aftermath of the chaotic rains that lashed Gwadar. — Photo shared by Yaqoob
The aftermath of the chaotic rains that lashed Gwadar. — Photo shared by Yaqoob

Two weeks on, Yaqoob has still not been able to return home. His house, located in the Thanawar area of Gwadar, bore the cracks of the rain assault. They were, however, now hidden with cheap plaster. Several of his neighbours had a similar story to tell.

According to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, at least 10 people lost their lives during the February-March rains. Hundreds of houses were either completely or partially damaged in the floods — they were not just makaans, but tiny abodes built with life-long savings.

While incessant showers battered Gwadar, temperatures in other areas of the province tanked below zero, paralysing life.

Incessant rains wreak havoc in Gwadar. — Photo shared by Yaqoob
Incessant rains wreak havoc in Gwadar. — Photo shared by Yaqoob

“For the first time in years, major stations across Balochistan recorded the lowest day and night temperatures,” the chief meteorologist told

Besides drowning Gwadar, these rains and snowfalls also penetrated down to Karachi, resulting in an unusual cold wave in March. The average daily temperature in the city during this month lies between 32.6 degrees in the day and 19 degrees at night.

But this time, Karachiites, many of whom had put away their winter clothes for the year, saw temperatures going as low as 11 degrees Celsius — that too in March.

Dr Masood Arshad, senior director of programmes at WWF-Pakistan, attributed the Balochistan rains to the “La Nina phenomenon”.

La Nina, literally translating to “little girl” in Spanish, is a weather condition which strengthens the south-westerly jet, responsible for bringing in the winter season over Pakistan. It translates into intermittent waves of extremely cold weather throughout the season and has thus resulted in much cooler temperatures not only up north but also in the south.

“Climate change has further strengthened the impact of La Nina. There is more moisture in the air due to global warming. In summer, it leads to monsoons while in winter it leads to cooler temperatures,” Arshad explained.

In the case of Balochistan, he continued, this phenomenon resulted in significant rains. Curtailment of natural drainage due to development activities further served as the cherry on top.

Bizenjo concurred. He said drainage in Gwadar had been severely affected due to the construction of the Marine Drive and Expressway, highlighting that the roads had been built at a higher height than the city.

“Earlier, the water used to be directly drained into the sea, but that entire process has been disturbed now,” he added.

Invisible forces

Amid the tug-of-war between rain and snow, the plains of Punjab remained invisible due to impenetrable fog and toxic smog.

For the past several years, Pakistan has been topping the chart of toxicity, with the air quality index showing Lahore and Karachi as the most polluted cities numerous times.

Before delving deeper into this problem, let’s first understand the difference between fog and smog. Fog consists of water droplets in the air, whereas smog is a serious air pollutant that combines fog and smoke. Fog makes it hard to notice things from a distance but isn’t dangerous to health, while long-term exposure to smog causes chronic conditions such as asthma, or lung problems.

The causes of smog are complex and multifaceted, involving both natural and human factors. Some of the natural factors include low wind speed, high humidity, and temperature inversion, which trap the pollutants near the ground.

Punjab reported plenty of both smog and fog from December to late February. And the already bad situation was worsened by dry weather, prompting the provincial government to resort to artificial rain.

WWF’s Arshad told that the absence of western disturbances — a weather pattern that brings moisture from the Mediterranean — created very dry weather conditions in November, December and January in both Pakistan and India.

This resulted in reduced temperatures as well as intense fog and smog, he said.

To put it simply, when the temperature drops and cold air blankets the ground, it traps the pollutants — think of it like a pollutant-catching blanket that covers the ground during winter. The particles in cold air also naturally hold less moisture, which isn’t exactly ideal because rain helps wash away pollutants.

According to a 2019 study, titled Falling Trend of Western Disturbances in Future Climate Simulations, winter precipitation in northern India and Pakistan was projected to decrease over the coming century due to falling western disturbance activity.

“The decline in WD frequency and intensity will cause a decrease in mean winter rainfall over Pakistan and northern India amounting to about 15 per cent of the mean,” it highlighted.

But at the same, another trend has been noted in western disturbances is their increasingly frequent occurrences in May, June and July, as highlighted by Kieran Hunt, a meteorology research fellow, in his analysis of western disturbances.

Hunt’s most important finding was the increase in monsoonal western disturbances, which means that “catastrophic events”, like floods, are becoming “much more frequent”.

What next?

But that is just the first three months of the year. From the looks of it, these extreme climate events don’t seem to end here.

The arrival of unexpected weather conditions in the spring months of this year is an indication that floods, if they hit Pakistan again this year, are only going to get worse.

As disaster and climate vulnerability expert Fatima Yamin put it, the rising sea temperatures had warmed up oceans, which in turn triggered a host of climate-related activities such as prolonged summers, unpredictable rainfall and everything else which is not in sync with the natural order of things.

The fact that the surface temperature of the world’s oceans hit its highest-ever level — global average daily sea surface temperatures hit 20.96 Celsius in August, breaking the record of 20.95C reached in 2016 — only adds weight to Yamin’s analysis.

The rising temperature of the oceans has nearly doubled the melting speed of glaciers over the last two decades. The glaciers of the Hindukush and Himalayan ranges, which cap almost the whole South Asian region, including Pakistan, are particularly vulnerable to being affected and could lose up to 75pc of their volume by the turn of the century, scientists warn.

The instability caused by global warming is not going to spare any of the five elements of nature — air, water, fire, earth and space — all of which are interconnected. Floods, droughts and natural disasters have occurred throughout the course of human existence, but the exponential rise in the scale and ferociousness of such events is telling of the times to come.