China: Weather Overview

Wednesday 18 January
10:05 GMT | 18:05 CST
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About China

  • Capital: Beijing
  • Area: 9,596,960km2
  • Population: 1,330,044,000
  • Currency: Yuan Renminbi (CNY)

About China

China is only second in size in Asia to mammoth Russia, and considered to be the third largest country in the world. In other words: China is massive. As such, it spans many latitudes; it has incredibly diverse landscapes from desert to mountains to elevated plateau to grassland to rainforest; it envelops many climatic zones. If it is possible to simplify, which it really isn’t, then China lies mostly within a northern temperate zone, which receives all four seasons avoiding extremes of temperature and effected by monsoons.

To break it down a little, China can be looked at in four sections; in the north is the temperate zone; in the south is the subtropical zone; central China is a warm temperate zone and in the west is a plateau climate zone. However, the very south of China dips its toes into a true tropical zone, while in the far north it reaches its fingertips into a cold temperate zone. The most popular tourist destinations, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Chengdu and Xian, all sit within the warm temperate and subtropical zones.

In the extreme north of the country, China borders with Russia’s Siberia and the remaining northern border is with the Gobi Desert. The climate is still temperate enough for agriculture but the extreme winters make for hard living. In Harbin, not on the border with Siberia but in the far northeast of China, conditions are harsh. The summers are hot with some rain; the winters are bitterly cold and dry. July and August, the peak summer months, see temperatures nearing the 30s, while January sees lows of -23°C, with the average maximum temperature staying firmly below zero from December to February. In the far west at a similar, slightly southerly latitude, Urumqi sees similar summer temperatures but much milder winters, with the minimum temperature in January at -17°C. Much of this area of China actually falls into the continental steppe climate category due to its elevation and great distance from the sea. The best time to visit the northwest is during its beautifully dry, not too hot summers, from mid May till mid September. The north-western regions see more snow in the winter than the northeast, while the north-eastern summers see more rain.

Central China, excluding the western plateau region, is a warm temperate zone, with all four seasons. Temperatures are higher and the area benefits from supply of water from the Yangtze. In Beijing, temperatures regularly soar up to 30°C between June and August. It is usually very humid all along the Yangtze in summer which can be very uncomfortable. Rain falls between May and October, and perhaps the best time to visit Beijing is at the very beginning and very end of summer in May and early September, when temperatures remain in the low 20s, the cool 12°C to 14°C nights provide some relief, and rainfall is still moderate. Spring and Autumn see quick changes in temperature, from a maximum temperature of 18°C in October, to 10°C in November, and 6°C in February to 12°C in March. Winter temperatures from December to February see night time average lows below freezing, at its coldest in January at -9°C. It usually snows in winter, but only very little.

Southern China is subtropical with long, hot winters and short, mild winters. The monsoon rains fall between May and October, though it is quite wet year round. In Chengdu the summer season falls between May and September. At either end of the season, temperatures rise from the low 20s up to the low 30s in July and August.  From June till August, average lows do not fall below 20°C. Spring and Autumn are mild and at winter’s coldest in January, Chengdu sees an average minimum temperature of 2°C. It very rarely falls below freezing or snows. This climate is very similar to that of Shanghai on China’s east coast, which may seem odd due to the expected moderating effects of the sea on Shanghai, but Chengdu is at a much higher elevation, accounting for its relatively mild summers, and protected from Siberian winds by the Qinling Mountains, which accounts for its mild winters. This also adds to the area’s humidity which is partially to blame its low levels of sunshine. Horrifically, Chengdu is less sunny than London. That’s right.

Far south, China enjoys a humid sub-tropical climate with the year split into one hot dry season and one hotter wet season. In coastal Macau and Hong Kong, summer is hot and humid with average highs in the low 30s and heavy rainfall, falling in intense typhoons. From April till October, rainfall is high and night time average low temperatures do not fall below 20°C. Winter sees a drop in humidity and vastly reduced rainfall. The daytime temperatures are pleasantly mild around 18°C, and nights get down to their coldest in January and February, dropping to lows of around 13°C. The islands in the South China Sea receive a tropical maritime climate. Their sovereignty is still under dispute with many surrounding countries laying claim to them.

In the west of China is the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau: a vast, elevated plateau that stretches into Kashmir in India. The plateau is surrounded by mountain ranges which block it off from the temperate zones of China to the south and east, and the Gobi desert to the northeast. The mountains also stand in the way of oceanic air masses coming from the south, leaving it at the mercy of Arctic fronts. In the summer they stop the monsoon rains from travelling onto to plateau. As a result the plateau sees low levels of rainfall year round, creating an arid climate. Bizarrely, precipitation usually falls in the form of hailstorms. Southern regions receive hot summers and cold winters. The very southern and eastern fringes are warm enough to support grassland, though frost still covers the land for around half the year. Further north, temperatures drop as altitude increases and permafrost prevails. Temperatures in the far north can get down to -40°C, which some may find a little nippy.

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