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China’s summer heat wave is breaking all records

Receding waters in Poyang Lake, in China's Jiangxi province, on Aug. 21. The lake has shrunk dramatically in a record-breaking heat wave. (AFP/Getty Images)

The unprecedented heat wave that has engulfed China this summer has dried up rivers, wilted crops and sparked forest fires. It has grounded ships, caused hydropower shortages and forced major cities to dim lights. Receding waters have revealed long-submerged ancient bridges and Buddhist statues.

Among the many striking images is a pattern left in the mud flats around Poyang Lake, usually the largest freshwater body in the country, which has shrunk by more than two-thirds. Chinese media dubbed the branchlike patterns carved by trickling waters “Earth tree,” calling the lake’s condition a warning about a dangerous future of intensifying extreme weather.

At 73 days and counting, the heat wave has easily surpassed China’s record of 62 days in 2013. All-time highs are being broken, often only to be re-broken days later. “This heat wave overtakes anything seen previously worldwide,” tweeted climate historian Maximiliano Herrera.

China shuts factories, rations electricity as heat wave stifles economy

Numerous fires have started over the past week amid the high heat and drought, with particularly intense blazes in central parts of the country near Chongqing, a city along the trickling Yangtze River. The city recorded low temperatures as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) in recent days, a record for daily minimums in August.

Among the most recent all-time records: Sichuan province reached 111.2F (44C) on Wednesday; a week ago, Beibei in Chongqing province recorded 113F (45C), the highest temperature ever in China outside the desert of Xinjiang.

“The area worst-affected includes much of the more built-up parts of China, leading to big impacts to society,” Vikki Thompson, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol in England, wrote in an email.

Electricity shortages in regions reliant on a vast network of power-generating dams and reservoirs also come as the Chinese government is debating how — and how fast — to transition away from coal-fired power to renewable sources.

The reduction in hydropower, which last year accounted for about 15 percent of China’s total energy supply, has added urgency to government concern about power generation keeping pace with rising consumption — a boon for coal-power companies that account for about 60 percent of electricity production.

President Xi Jinping’s plan for China’s carbon dioxide emissions to peak before 2030 is spurring a massive rollout of wind and solar power. But the government has also said that coal — a leading contributor to global greenhouse gases — will remain the mainstay of national energy production in the near term.

China hit by drought, floods, as Yangtze River runs dry

Power shortages create a prime opportunity for China’s fossil-fuel giants to secure their place in the nation’s rapidly evolving energy structure, said Philip Andrews-Speed, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute.

“After this crisis, the coal lobby will be saying, ‘This is why you need to have more coal mines and more coal-fired power plants,’ ” he said. “As in Europe, the key is keeping the lights on and keeping the heating and the air conditioning going. That is the short-term priority.”

After Sichuan’s hydropower output fell below half its normal level, 67 coal-fired power plants in the province were “firing on all cylinders” to generate as much power as possible as part of an emergency response to the shortage, Chinese state media reported Tuesday.

Long before China was a leading producer and installer of solar and wind power, it prioritized expanded hydropower production with megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam, as well as hundreds of smaller generators built across China’s major rivers and their tributaries.

The scale of this investment means swaths of southwest China rely on hydropower for as much as 80 percent of their electricity and transfer excess energy to eastern provinces. Energy-intensive industries have flocked to provinces such as Sichuan to take advantage of cheap, plentiful and renewable power produced by local dams.

The prospect of reduced energy production from the usually wet southwest in future years could undermine the region’s reliance on hydropower as a carbon-free source. More-frequent droughts make hydropower an uncertain bet, Andrews-Speed said.

China’s summer floods and heat waves fuel plans for a changing climate

Sichuan’s high reliance on hydropower means that it is hard for other energy sources to make up a shortage when needed, Lin Boqiang, dean of the China Institute for Energy Policy Studies at Xiamen University, wrote in an article.

“If the frequency of extreme weather increases because of climate change, then the government must actively take responsive measures to diversify the energy structure and improve the electricity grid,” he said.

The concern about hydropower’s reliability is a sharp reversal from the situation at the start of the summer, when torrential rain filled Chinese reservoirs and raised hydropower generation.

Turmoil in global energy markets caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added to China’s long-standing concerns about energy security. After power shortages late last year, the Chinese government responded by ordering coal mines to expand output. As the rest of the world has shunned Russian oil and coal, China has imported record amounts of both.

Beijing’s continued embrace of fossil fuels has drawn criticism from climate change activists that the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter is failing to transition away from coal fast enough to meet international goals to keep global average temperature rises to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels.

Part of the problem for Chinese state planners is that energy use per capita in China remains below half that of many industrialized nations, including the United States, and China’s total primary energy consumption is unlikely to peak for at least another decade.

Yet the intensity of extreme weather events in recent years has drawn greater attention to the impact of climate change in China. Even though Beijing, for many years, has recognized the need to slow global warming, public discussion of the issue was limited until only a couple of years ago.

As climate change moved up China’s geopolitical agenda, along with Beijing’s desire to be seen as a global leader on the issue, dramatic scenes of flash floods in central China’s Henan province last summer — and the more than 300 deaths they caused — helped to raise awareness.

Studies have found that heat waves are increasing in intensity and duration in China, as well as delivering warmer temperatures at night, because of human-induced climate change. The increase has been observed in urban and rural locations. Heat waves are also starting earlier and ending later.

And it’s just the beginning.

“We have been seeing heat waves getting hotter over the past century, and we know this is due to climate change. We know that these sort of events are getting increasingly likely — but the events this year, with heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere, have been shocking,” Thompson wrote.

Official rhetoric, too, has shifted toward openly connecting extreme weather events to climatic shifts. Earlier this month, Chen Lijuan of the National Climate Center told local media that global warming means heat waves will become a “new normal,” in which high temperatures arrive earlier and last longer — in a trend that will become “ever more obvious in the future.”

Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.