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Big chill across East Asia

China’s facing an unusually harsh winter this season with temperatures plummeting to the lowest in three decades. It’s certainly no consolation but China’s neighbours are also feeling the chill, Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Jan 13, 2013 10:07 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

China’s facing an unusually harsh winter this season with temperatures plummeting to the lowest in three decades.

The freeze has left thousands of ships trapped in thick, frozen sea ice off the eastern Chinese coast, grounded hundreds of flights, stranded tourists, triggered car pile-ups on icy, slippery highways and is gradually pushing up food prices as livestock perish and vegetables congeal before harvest. Even the usually dependable train routes have been impacted because of snowfall and accumulated ice.

It’s certainly no consolation but China’s neighbours are also feeling the chill; not all of it caused by China’s hardline diplomatic stance over disputed islands on certainly more balmy seas. Japan’s feeling it too.

And so are South and North Korea. In Japan, record snowfall has been documented across the country in 18 locations so far. According to the Meteorological Agency, the cold snap is likely to continue till early February. Temperatures in eastern Japan are likely to be colder than average, the agency said.

In the neighbourhood, a prolonged cold spell sent the mercury plummeting throughout South Korea as well with the South Korean capital city of Seoul recording a temperature of -16.5°C last week, the lowest in 27 years.

A cold wave watch for Seoul and a cold wave alert for the central part of the country have been issued, the Korean Meteorological Agency (KMA) said.

The cold spell also hit North Korea with the morning lows plunging to -22°C in some regions. North Korean capital city Pyongyang’s residents saw the coldest weather with the morning low recorded at -19°C, the KMA said.

Back in China, if Beijing shivered at -18°C on Christmas Eve, the normally cold weather-insulated southern region is feeling the cold pinch.

If blizzards are keeping people inside homes in north and northwest China, in the south the sharp dip in temperature is threatening power supplies; China Southern Power Grid was melting ice on power lines to prevent electricity outages, Wang Xiaochun, the company’s publicity manager, told Chinese state media.

Without the comfort of centralised heating — which North China has — it’s been doubly harsh for those leaving in the southern provinces.

The lack of centralised heating has triggered an online debate on China’s microblogs whether it was time for the government to introduce it to southern provinces.

The National Meteorological Centre said earlier this week that southern China will be under heavier-than-normal snow, rain and freezing temperatures for the next few days. Shelters equipped with quilts, coats and food have opened in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“You can find shelters and aid stations for the elderly and homeless in all communities and villages in our district,” Zou Zhongxian, a civil affairs official in the city’s Luyang district, told Xinhua.

The numbers involved — as is usually the case with China — are huge. About 180,000 cattle have died in the north. In the remote Inner Mongolian province, more than 9.5 million people have been affected; the economic loss was of more than 700 million yuan. The province of Heilongjiang has suffered economic losses worth more than 1,000 million yuan.

Thousands of hectares of crops have also been damaged. So, while non-food inflation came in last month at 1.7%, food prices, which make up nearly one-third of the weighting, jumped 4.2% from this time last year. Vegetable prices soared 14.8% year-on-year, or 17.5% month-on-month.

The numbers are expected to get worse in the first two months of 2013, since prices traditionally rise ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, also known as Spring Festival, which this year falls in mid-February.

Eleven days into January, Beijing’s cold temperatures show no signs of abating.

Why is the winter harsh this year? “One reason could be the extremely warm temperature over the Arctic Sea last summer and autumn. It resulted in the reduction of Arctic Sea ice. The reduction of sea ice could have triggered this kind of winter,’’ professor Wang Bing from Tsinghua University’s Centre for Earth System Sciences told HT.

The reason was echoed by Zhou Batao, assistant director at the National Climate Centre, affiliated to China’s top weather office, China Meteorological Administration (CMA).

“The reduction of the Arctic Sea ice is the main factor in influencing East Asia and China’s climate. In September 2012, the Arctic Sea ice fell to the lowest since records began with satellite observations in 1979. The smaller the Arctic sea ice area…the activity of the southward cold air is more frequent, easily leading to the Eurasian region and China’s cold winter,” Zhou said in an email.

“We can notice the rising frequency of extreme weather systems. Though it could be difficult to judge whether this is part of climate change, there is no doubt about the impact it will have on people’s livelihoods and farming production,” Ma Jun, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental group, told HT.

“Vegetable prices are going up. Meat production is falling. So the price of lamb could go up especially in the north and north-western regions of China,” Ma said.

“Many places (in China) saw their temperatures drop to historical lows,” Yu Qiumei, a senior analyst for the National Bureau of Statistics, said to LA Times. “Frequent snow in the north and rainy and gloomy weather in the south impacted the production, transportation and sales of vegetables.”

The important question, Ma forecast, could be how Beijing — which is centrally heated between November 15 and March 15 — deals with the growing demands of introducing central heating in south China. “How will the resultant pollution be tackled? The answer lies in better-insulated buildings which are energy efficient. Before using coal for central heating, consider renewable energy resources,” Ma said. Probably then, the winter would be a little harsh on the environment.