Aug 22, 2022 - Energy & Environment

China's unrivaled 70-day heat wave

Illustration of a heat temperature map radiating from the stars on the Chinese map.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The extreme heat and drought that has been roasting a vast swath of southern China for at least 70 straight days has no parallel in modern record-keeping in China, or elsewhere around the world for that matter.

Why it matters: Based on recent studies, the question facing climate scientists is how much climate change contributed to this disaster.

The big picture: More than 260 weather stations saw their highest-ever temperatures during the long-running heat wave, according to state media reports.

By the numbers: More all-time heat records fell Sunday, particularly in Sichuan province.

  • Gao reached 110.3°F (43.5°C) while Jianyang and Zigong hit 110.1°F (43.4°C), according to Meteo France meteorologist Etienne Kapikian.
  • The all-time high temperature of 105.8°F (41°C) in Mianyang on Sunday broke the previous record by 4°F, an unusually large margin for such a milestone.
  • On Saturday, Chongqing, whose city center is home to 9 million, saw an overnight low temperature that was a few degrees hotter than its typical August daytime high, at 94.8°F (34.9°F).
  • If verified, it would be the hottest overnight minimum temperature anywhere in China during August, according to weather historian Maximiliano Herrera.
  • In Beibei, the temperature hit 113°F (45°C) on Aug. 19 and 20, the highest reliable temperature ever recorded in the country outside of Xinjiang.

Threat level: This heat wave has also set records for its geographic reach, with nearly 530,000 square miles within China seeing high temperatures exceed 104°F (40°C).

  • This is equivalent to the states of Texas, Colorado and California combined.
  • In China, such a footprint encompasses well over 100 million people.

What they’re saying: "I can't think of anything comparable to China's heat wave of summer 2022 in its blend of intensity, duration, geographic extent and number of people affected,” meteorologist Bob Henson, a contributor to Yale Climate Connections, told Axios.

  • Henson noted the simultaneous extreme heat events and droughts also occurring this summer in Europe, East Africa and the U.S.
  • “We know that when drought happens, a warming climate accentuates the impacts, parching the landscape and allowing temperatures to rise even further. We've seen the drought-and-heat playbook in action across the Northern Hemisphere this summer,” Henson said.

The bottom line: The human and economic tolls from this event are serious and will become clearer with time. For one, the drought and extreme heat are further slowing China's economic growth.

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