Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who decides when it snows and when the heating comes on in China?

Beijing was graced by its first snowfall this year last sunday. It is very unusual for it to snow so early in Beijing. Infact, it was the earliest snowfall in 22 years. However, there is more to it than just a freak weather phenomenon. The Chinese authorities quite often seem to engage with attempts to modify the weather, especially by inducing or increasing rain artificially over Beijing and the north of China to alleviate drought, which is often a problem in this arid region. Sunday's snowfall was at least partly induced by seeding the clouds with 186 doses of silver iodine. According to some reports, the aim was just to make it rain, not snow, but a sudden cold front which descended on sunday made it snow heavily, disrupting the traffic and power grid and delaying many flights. The temperature did indeed drop very suddenly between saturday and sunday, going from 13 degrees to below freezing. The weather forecast had already been reporting that it would snow for several days, and so I wonder how many days in advance the clouds had been seeded, if they were not expecting to produce snow. Others claim that the effect of these weather manipulation techniques is exagerated, and that it is impossible to predict what the result will be.

Anyway, another problem here in Beijing was that in most places, including my dorm, the heating was still not turned on when the snow came and temperatures outside dropped below
zero. The thing is that in China, the heating system is centralized. In the North of China, defined as everywhere north of the Yangtze river (or everywhere blue in the picture above), buildings usually have central heating, however it is not turned on until a specific set date, which in Beijing is usually november the 15th. Although some well off people and some offices have their own private heating systems, most people have to wait until the 15th of november for the heating to come on (it is then turned off on march the 15th.) It is well known that the two weeks before the heating comes on and after it comes off are the most uncomfortable time. This year however, they have decided to turn the heating on early here in Beijing, due to the unseasonal cold. They finally turned the heating on in my dorm on monday, although we had already experienced some pretty chilly nights, and I was forced to buy myself an extra blanket. Today it's a bit warmer outside, and they've turned the heating off again.

In some northern regions which are technically in Siberia, the heating comes on earlier. However, in the whole of Southern China, that is South of the Yangtze, it doesn't come on at all. Although again some wealthy people may have private heating, the vast majority just don't have any. Although the winters in the South are much less cold than in the North, with the temperature rarely dropping below zero, it is still unpleasantly cold inside the houses sometimes, and people often keep their coats on even inside. When I visited the south of China during the last Spring festival, I got used to keeping my coat on inside the hotel room or house I was staying in, and getting undressed to have a shower was always unpleasant.

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