BEIJING - Ice swimmers were taking their shocking plunges in north China through the thickest ice in years, but most Chinese nationwide are shivering through the coldest weather in nearly three decades.
Freezing weather has sent temperatures diving to a national average of 25 degrees Fahrenheit since Nov. 20, the lowest average temperature in 28 years, says the China Meteorological Administration.
In China's frozen northeast, where the city of Harbin hosts a popular snow and ice festival each winter, temperatures over the same period averaged minus-5 degrees, a 43-year low, according to the CMA.
And a new cold front will hit south China this week, the CMA said, as temperatures in several regions will be several degrees lower than the average of normal years. The CMA said ice had covered 10,500 square miles of the sea surface, the most expansive since 2008 when authorities began to collect ice data, and it said the ice coverage will likely continue to grow.
One million people in normally temperate south China have been going through unusually cold weather in recent days, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported Tuesday. Thousands of travelers have endured long delays as fog and frozen runways paralyzed airports. Hundreds of irate passengers berated staff at Kunming's airport last week, according to pictures on the Caixin magazine website.
Some trains have also been halted and several highways temporarily closed due to snow and ice.
In north China's Inner Mongolia, record-low temperatures and heavy snow have left two people dead and affected 770,000 others, said Xinhua. More than 260,000 people were in need of emergency aid.
In eastern Shandong province, more than 1,000 ships are stuck because of thick sea ice on Laizhou Bay. The government fretted over damage to late-season crops such as winter wheat. Prices for vegetable have jumped 55% in the past 10 weeks, reported the People's Daily newspaper.
The super-low temperatures are rare but will continue for some time, said Zhang Lansheng, 85, one of China's earliest environment and climate experts. Compared to early 2008, when south China suffered a snow and ice "disaster" that caused widespread power outages and affected more than 100 million people, China now boasts more experience and disaster readiness, he said.
"But we need to increase the accuracy of weather forecasts, and different levels of government should improve emergency facilities and organize people to boost their ability to cope with disasters."
The weather has also exposed a decades-old debate about the lack of heating in south China. A line drawn in the 1950s split China into a northern half that built and still enjoys heavily subsidized public heating, and a southern half that shivers through winter without a public heating network and must make do with private, often less effective, heating devices.
While some officials and energy experts suggest heating the south could endanger China's energy supply, Zhang hopes southern cities with enough financial resources can build heating networks with clean energy.
"I don't think the old way to divide the heating areas is good. But it's hard to change it now, so I don't think the south will be the same as the north anytime soon."
The nation's great size means tourists can always enjoy warm days in destinations such as Hainan Island, China's "Hawaii." But some Chinese are determined to make the most of the deep chill.
At the Harbin ice festival, 16 Chinese and foreign couples braved the cold for a mass wedding celebration on Sunday.
China has no history of winter sports, but middle-class Chinese are increasingly heading to suburban ski resorts that have mushroomed in north China in recent years where ice fishermen still haul their thrashing prey up through holes sawed through thick ice.
The seven-leg China Tour de Ski, a cross-country ski race that started in frozen Jilin in China's northeast, continued as scheduled. It finishes Friday in frigid Xinjiang, on China's border with Kazakhstan, where temperatures have hit 40 below this winter.
India is also experiencing record cold, and forecasts in Israel call for 2 inches of snow, a rare occurrence. The Weather Underground reports that the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where New Delhi is located, has seen record cold temperatures. Temperatures in New Delhi fell to a low of 35.4 degrees on Jan. 6 and the high temperature on Jan. 2 was 49.6, the coldest daily maximum in 44 years.
Locations in Haryana State reported a low temperature of 26.7 degrees, an all-time record cold temperature.
Contributing: Sunny Yang
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