Clifford Coonan: It's much colder in China

The view from Beijing
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The Independent Online

Beijing is grappling with its coldest winter in decades, with the city experiencing its heaviest snowfall since 1951 and temperatures that yesterday plunged to minus 16C, the lowest in 20 years. In the far north of the city, near the Great Wall, snow fell to a depth of 20cm.

Tens of thousands of workers wearing padded People's Liberation Army coats were mobilised to clear the streets but fears remained that a prolonged cold spell could cause havoc with traffic systems and power supply in the rest of northern China.

The cold weather is expected to continue, and China's met office warned that temperatures in the far north of the country could fall to around minus 3C. Sections of main roads around Beijing, in the nearby port city of Tianjin and neighbouring provinces, including the important coal-producing province of Shanxi, were impassable for days.

Most of China's energy needs come from coal, and power station coal stockpiles are falling in northern, eastern and central China because of weather-related disruption to deliveries. Snow has stopped coal transportation to power plants in the eastern province of Shandong, which has cut inventories to fewer than nine days' use, according to local media. Normally the minimum is 15 days.

The cold front is also blasting areas that are normally more temperate. In Hangzhou, in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang, officials have warned that the city's daily natural gas supplies would be 300,000 cubic metres short of demand if the weather persisted.

Central China remains under a snowstorm warning, stretching from Henan to Hunan provinces, according to the national weather bureau's website.

Large parts of the Korean peninsula have also been blanketed in snow, bringing traffic chaos to Seoul and forcing the cancellation of all domestic flights to and from Gimpo, Seoul's main domestic airport.

But in Beijing the freezing conditions have been less disruptive than had been feared. During a freak early snowstorm in November, provoked by cloud seeding, the city had ground to a halt, but this week, while the temperature dropped to around zero, traffic chaos was averted and there were no major power outages.

More than 500 flights were cancelled during the snowstorm, which brought 33cm of snow to north Beijing, but all three of Beijing Capital International Airport's runways were clear yesterday and schools in the capital reopened.