Beijing has been gripped by a record-breaking cold wave over the past week, with temperatures plummeting to the lowest levels seen in December since 1951. The frigid weather has brought heavy snow, transportation disruptions, and energy shortages across northern and central China.
Over 300 Hours Below Freezing in Beijing
Beijing has recorded over 300 hours of temperatures below freezing so far this December, the most since China began keeping records in 1951.
On December 18th, Beijing saw its first snowfall of the winter season. Since then, temperatures have remained below freezing for 8 consecutive days from December 19th-26th.
During this 8-day stretch, Beijing’s average low temperature has been -10°C (14°F). The lowest temperature reached -22.2°C (-8°F) on the morning of December 23rd.
This table shows the record low temperatures registered in Beijing over the past week:
|Record Low Temp
Beijing also matched a record for most consecutive hours below freezing in December, with 208 hours straight from December 2nd-9th.
Record Cold Felt Across Northern China
The record cold snap has extended across much of northern China. Temperatures have dropped to 40-year lows in Shanghai, plunging to -9°C (15.8°F) on December 18th.
Provinces like Hebei and Shanxi saw temperatures plunge below -30°C (-22°F) last week. At least 8 weather stations across China registered record lows.
In the city of Mohe located along China’s border with Russia, the temperature sank to -53°C (-63.4°F) on December 19th. This was the lowest reading across China since 1966.
Blizzard conditions combined with the icy temperatures have made road travel treacherous. Major highways across northern provinces have been closed intermittently due to low visibility.
Heavy Snowfall Leads to Transportation Disruptions
The heavy snowfall has severely impacted both air and rail transportation across northern China.
As of December 19th, China Railway has suspended operations on several routes due to heavy snow and blizzards. This includes high-speed rail lines connecting Beijing-Shenyang, Beijing-Harbin and Beijing-Shijiazhuang. Nearly 90 train journeys have been canceled over the past week.
Over 500 flights were grounded across China on Sunday December 18th alone as runways became obscured by snow. Beijing Capital International Airport saw over 200 flight cancellations. Flights at airports serving Taiyuan, Hohhot, Lanzhou and other northern cities have also faced major disruptions.
Intercity buses and public transit services in Beijing, Tianjin and other snow-laden cities have been suspended or delayed as well.
Surging Energy Demand Leads to Shortages
The record cold has led to skyrocketing demand for energy, resulting in tight supplies of thermal coal and natural gas across more than 10 northern provinces.
Daily coal consumption by China’s six major power plants hit a new high of 2.24 million tonnes on December 19th. Despite running at full capacity, many plants have coal inventories of less than 7 days as suppliers struggle to keep up with demand.
The situation reached crisis levels in central China’s Henan province last week. Rolling blackouts were imposed across cities like Zhengzhou and Luoyang as coal reserves dipped below 2 million tonnes, the minimum threshold authorities have deemed safe. Officials estimate at least 73,000 residents lost heating services amid December temperatures averaging -9°C (15.8°F).
Meanwhile, record withdrawals of natural gas have also led to shortages, with usage rising 13.9% year-on-year in the first 2 weeks of December. Analysts estimate gas demand could reach up to 20% above previous winter peaks if cold conditions persist through early January.
When Will Conditions Improve?
Forecast models suggest the polar vortex may remain destabilized for the next 7-10 days at least. This means temperatures across northern China are expected to remain 5 to 10 degrees Celsius below average throughout late December and early January.
However, the National Meteorological Center predicts the intensity of cold air invading China may gradually weaken after December 28th. This could allow the mercury to recover closer to seasonal norms during the first week of January.
Precipitation and wind speeds are also forecast to decrease, which should limit additional accumulations of snow and ice.
But even as conditions become less extreme later in winter, analysts say China’s energy crisis may take longer to fully resolve. Despite stockpiling over 170 million tonnes of thermal coal in recent months, reserves at many power plants remain thin after drawing down inventories to meet surging heating demand.
Full recovery of coal and gas inventories to comfortable levels may have to wait until spring or the post-winter season. During this time, supplies can be replenished while demand for residential heating declines.
Looking beyond this winter, some experts believe the early bitter cold could be a harbinger of extreme weather patterns to come as climate change accelerates.
A 2021 study found the warming Arctic is causing jet stream patterns to become more elongated, allowing frigid polar air to plunge deep into Europe and East Asia for prolonged periods. The early December cold wave across China and Europe may be linked to this phenomenon, which could drive recurring bouts of extreme cold in winter months ahead.
To mitigate such risks, China will need to continue improving energy self-sufficiency and winterization efforts. Key priorities such as expanding gas storage capacity, upgrading heat distribution networks, and hardening infrastructure against cold temperature extremes will become even more vital in the years ahead.
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