Massive Snowstorms Hit China
China’s worst snowstorms in nearly 50 years have brought rain, sleet, wet snow and sharply colder temperatures to most of eastern and central China, including a majority of China’s winter wheat and rapeseed production areas. The snow, which arrived after January 10, covered all of the North China Plain except for Beijing, northern Shandong and northern Hebei, and extended from Inner Mongolia in the north to Guizhou in the south. (MODIS satellite image - January 31)
Snow Cover in China
Before – January 10 After – January 28
More than 4 inches of water-equivalent precipitation was reported in Anhui, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hubei, and Zhejiang as of January 28, boosting soil moisture and increasing water levels in lakes and rivers in the Huai and Yangtze River basins. According to the China meteorological Administration, the wintry weather is shifting southward and will persist for at least another 10 days.
The Ministry of Agriculture said on Wednesday (January 30) that the unusually harsh winter had dealt a serious blow to the country's crops and warned that damage could rise because of continued cold temperatures. The ministry said 6.8 million Ha of farm crops had been damaged in southern, central and eastern China. Of that total, it said 733,333 Ha had been ruined while another 3.5 million Ha were badly damaged. The crops affected included rapeseed and wheat, although no specific damage amounts by crop were given. Traders and industry officials appear to be most nervous about the damage to rapeseed, an oilseed grown mainly along the Yangtze River that is harvested after March.
- The snow is expected to benefit the winter wheat crop, but freezing temperatures and the crushing weight of the snow may cause damage to the rapeseed crop. Subtropical fruit crops in the south, fruit trees in the north, and winter vegetables are all vulnerable to the snow, ice and cold temperatures. Reports from southern China suggest the sugar crop was unaffected. Livestock and poultry losses have been reported.
- The storms disrupted food deliveries, adding pressure on prices of meat, eggs, cooking oil and vegetables ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
- Although the ongoing snowstorms have clogged transportation lines and caused short-term food supply shortages and price spikes, industry insiders stated that there would be little long-term impact on domestic futures markets.
- Possible indirect losses include spoiled food from lack of refrigeration/transportation delays/wet storage facilities, damage to farmer's markets and greenhouses, and energy shortages due to downed power lines and coal shipment delays.
- If the snow melts rapidly, there is a real possibility of flooding. Lakes and reservoirs in the Yangtze River basin were lower than normal in 2007 and should be able to handle the runoff easily. Flooding is more likely in the Huai River basin, which is still recovering from last summer's damaging floods.
Impact by Crop - Preliminary Assessments
Winter wheat – The wheat crop was fully dormant in the northern part of the North China Plain (Hebei, northern Shandong, northern Henan) in January. Light snowfall and seasonably cold temperatures likely had no impact on the dormant crop. Heavy snow in the northwest (Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi) provided welcome moisture and cold-weather protection. The heavy snow and rain in Anhui, Jiangsu and southern Henan may have caused some lodging, but the crop will likely benefit from the additional moisture in the spring, when temperatures increase and water demands are highest.
Winter rapeseed – The National Grain and Oils Information Center said rapeseed production will likely be cut by the sleet and snow storms. An estimated 526,316 hectares of rapeseed were affected in the southern provinces of Guizhou, Hunan and Hubei. The hardest hit province was Jiangsu, where an estimated 64 percent of planted area was damaged by freezing rain, which can destroy leaves, young plants and shallow roots. However, other analysts suggest that the storms and low temperatures will not seriously affect rapeseed yield this year. The full impact of the current wintry weather will not be known until the snow melts and the crop starts flowering in March.
Analysts suggest that lower rapeseed production in 2008 may force China to import more palm oil and soybeans and increase the prices for all oilseeds. China raised rapeseed area last fall by as much as 20 percent with an expectation of higher production in 2008. The government hoped for a reduction in vegetable oil imports and a curbing the high prices that followed the drop in domestic output in 2007. The higher area could offset yield losses from the current storms that may occur.
Winter vegetables (greenhouses) – There have been many reports of damage to greenhouses and nurseries, which have been set up by the millions around major cities to help provide fresh produce during the winter. In addition to the physical damage from the heavy snow, the sharply colder temperatures and persistent cloudiness have decreased crop growth. Vegetable prices have increased by up to 300 percent in some markets due to tighter supplies and higher transportation costs.
Sugar – An official from the China Sugar Association reported that the sugar crop in Guangxi Autonomous Region, the largest sugar producing region in China, has not been seriously affected by freezing temperatures. He said that about 50 percent of the sugarcane crop is in the ground and the heavy snow might depress the harvest, but large-scale damage hasn't been observed.
Livestock and Poultry: The Ministry of Agriculture reported on January 31 that 15.8 million head of livestock had perished in the storms, including 14 million fowl and 386,000 pigs who froze or starved to death. The losses could exacerbate China’s current high food prices and inflation rate.
Transportation losses - Industry analysts in China report that the recent snow has seriously affected the transportation of corn from production regions in northern China to consumers in southern China, creating a tight market in the south. The transport of fruit, vegetables and fish from south to north has also been hindered, as well as the shipment of eggs, poultry and livestock from central China to Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Cold Temperatures Threaten Crops
The storms were accompanied by the coldest weather of the 2007/08 winter season so far, which until January 10 had been milder than normal across the country. Minimum temperatures dropped below freezing as far south as Guangdong province, and a few stations in Sichuan reported record-low temperatures
Although average temperatures have been significantly below normal in mid-January, the winter wheat crop in the central and southern North China Plain was dormant and protected from the cold by snow. Cold temperatures were more of a threat to the wheat crop in northern Hebei and northwestern Shandong, where snow cover was non-existent. However, minimum temperatures never dipped below -14 C, which is above the winterkill threshold. The low temperatures may have had a greater impact on the rapeseed crop in the Yangtze River valley. Rapeseed is more vulnerable to freeze damage than wheat. In southern China, the impact of cold weather on the production of winter vegetables and tropical crops (such as citrus) is expected to be serious, although it is still too early to make an accurate assessment of crop losses.
As recently as January 8, Chinese officials were reporting that the water level in several sections of the Yangtze River were at record lows. Officials stated that the 2007/08 winter dry season arrived a month earlier than normal and rainfall in the upper reaches of the river had been lower than normal during 2007. Also, large amounts of water were stored at the Three Gorges Dam, which caused the flow in the river to fall 50 percent. The widespread and sustained rain and snow weather since mid January is expected to offer significant drought relief in the Yangtze River basin. In fact, given the saturated soils and impressive snowfall totals, flooding is likely in the Huai and Yangtze River valley if the snow melts rapidly. The Huai River valley suffered serious flooding in the summer of 2007, and water control facilities may not have been repaired from the previous disaster.