China is experiencing the longest and hottest heatwave in its history, with temperatures reaching up to 45°C in some areas. The extreme weather has caused widespread impacts on people, industry, and agriculture, as well as raising concerns about the role of human activity in climate change.
The heatwave in China has been ongoing for two months, affecting large parts of the country. Hundreds of places have reported temperatures of more than 40°C, and many records have been broken. For instance, on August 18, the temperature in Chongqing in Sichuan province reached 45°C, the highest ever recorded in China outside the desert-dominated region of Xinjiang. On August 20, the temperature in the city did not fall below 34.9°C, the highest minimum temperature ever recorded in China in August.
According to weather historian Maximiliano Herrera, who monitors extreme temperatures around the world, this is the most severe heatwave recorded anywhere. He says: “This combines the most extreme intensity with the most extreme length with an incredibly huge area all at the same time. There is nothing in world climatic history which is even minimally comparable to what is happening in China.”
The heatwave has also been accompanied by low rainfall in parts of China, leading to rivers falling to low levels, with 66 drying up completely. In parts of the Yangtze, water levels are the lowest since records began in 1865. In a few places, local water supplies have run out and drinking water has had to be trucked in. On August 19, China announced a national drought alert for the first time in nine years.
What are the Impacts of the Heatwave?
The heatwave and drought have had widespread impacts on people, industry, and farming. The high temperatures have increased the demand for air conditioning, putting pressure on the electricity grid. Hydroelectricity generation has fallen because of the low water levels. Sichuan has been especially affected, as it normally gets 80 per cent of its electricity from hydropower. Thousands of factories in the province have had to cease operations because of electricity shortages. Offices and shopping malls were also told to reduce lighting and air conditioning to save power.
The heatwave has also damaged crops and livestock, threatening food security and livelihoods. In Sichuan alone, 47,000 hectares of crops are reported to have been lost and another 433,000 hectares damaged. The agriculture ministry has said it will try to increase rainfall by seeding clouds, but it is unclear whether this will make a significant difference. The heatwave has also increased the risk of pests and diseases, such as locusts and African swine fever, which could further affect food production and prices.
The heatwave has also posed serious health risks for people, especially the elderly, children, and those with chronic conditions. The high temperatures and humidity can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, and respiratory problems. Subway stations have set up rest areas where people can recover from the heat. Hospitals have reported an increase in patients with heat-related illnesses. Some people have resorted to unconventional methods to cope with the heat, such as sleeping on ice blocks, swimming in rivers, or wearing watermelons on their heads.
What are the Causes of the Heatwave?
The heatwave in China is partly a result of natural variability, such as the El Niño phenomenon, which affects the global climate patterns. However, many experts agree that human activity, such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and urbanization, has also contributed to the extreme weather. These factors have increased the average global temperature, altered the atmospheric circulation, and reduced the natural cooling effects of vegetation and water.
According to a recent study by the World Weather Attribution initiative, human-induced climate change made the 2022 heatwave in China at least 10 times more likely than it would have been without global warming. The study also found that the heatwave was about 1.5°C hotter than it would have been in a pre-industrial climate. The study used observational data, climate models, and statistical methods to estimate the probability and intensity of the heatwave under different scenarios.
The study warns that such heatwaves could become more frequent and intense in the future, unless drastic actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate. The study also calls for more research and monitoring of the regional climate in China, as well as better preparedness and response to extreme weather events.
How are People Responding to the Heatwave?
The heatwave in China has sparked public awareness and debate about the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as the need for mitigation and adaptation measures. Some people have expressed anger and frustration at the government’s lack of action and transparency on the issue, while others have called for more cooperation and solidarity among the people and the regions. Some people have also taken personal actions to reduce their carbon footprint, such as using public transport, recycling, and planting trees.
The government has also taken some steps to address the heatwave and its impacts, such as issuing alerts, providing subsidies, and mobilizing resources. However, some critics argue that these measures are insufficient and reactive, and that more long-term and proactive policies are needed to tackle the root causes of the problem. Some of the suggestions include:
- Implementing a national carbon pricing system to incentivize low-carbon development and innovation
- Enhancing renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency and conservation
- Promoting green and resilient infrastructure and urban planning
- Strengthening water management and irrigation systems
- Supporting sustainable and diversified agriculture and food systems
- Improving health and social services and emergency preparedness
- Increasing public education and participation on climate change and its solutions
The heatwave in China is a wake-up call for the world to take urgent and collective action to address the climate crisis. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a major economic and political power, China has a key role and responsibility to lead and support the global efforts to combat climate change. The heatwave also shows the need for more scientific research and cooperation to understand and predict the regional and local impacts of climate change, and to develop and implement effective and equitable adaptation strategies.