Introduction & Key Facts
China’s Climate and Air Pollution
China can be divided into five climatic regions: north and northeast, northwest, central, south, and Tibet:
North and Northeastern China
This region, which includes the country’s capital, Beijing, experiences extreme temperatures in both summer and winter. During the hot and dry summers, which generally last from May to August, temperatures quickly rise to 30°C, and even 40°C days are not unheard of. The winter, on the other hand, can be brutally cold, especially in the area north of the Great Wall, where temperatures can drop to -40°C.
In Beijing, the coldest month is January, with average temperatures of -10–0°C. The wind chill is often much colder, however, due to the cutting northern winds that sweep through the city. In the spring, sand clouds borne from Inner Mongolia charge the air with static electricity. Heavy rainstorms are common in the late summer, although June is the month with the most rainfall overall. Beijing experiences its most beautiful days in autumn. This short season of blue skies and breezy days is called tiangao qishuang by the locals, meaning “the sky is high and the air is fresh”.
Few people, and even fewer expats, live in China’s northwest. If you do make a trip there while you’re living in China, you should know that the summers are hot and dry and it is very cold in winter. In January in Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the average high only reaches -20°C. This region receives little to no rainfall throughout the year.
Central China also has hot summers, but they are anything but dry. In fact, three of the larger cities in this area, Wuhan, Chongqing, and Nanjing, have garnered the nickname “The Three Furnaces” due to their sweltering heat and high humidity between April and October. Winters can be miserably cold and wet, but they are fortunately also quite short.
Shanghai also falls within this climatic zone. As with Beijing, June is the wettest month, although you can expect some rainfall year round. Winter is damp and grey with temperatures hovering around 0–5°C (or lower) in January. The best weather in Shanghai is in the spring (April to mid-May) and autumn (September to mid-November). The summer in Shanghai is also hot and humid, with highs around 40°C. The sudden surprising spikes in heat at the end of the summer are called Qiulaohu (Autumnal Tiger).
Unlike in areas to the north, the winters in China’s most southerly provinces are short and mild. It’s still a good idea to pack some warmer clothes, however. On the flip side, summers are long, hot and humid and there is even a rainy monsoon season (April–June). This climatic region also experiences some extreme weather events, with typhoons common on the southeast coast between July and September. You can find a lot of safety advice for China in this guide.
The weather in Tibet tends to change rapidly, and you may feel like you’ve experienced all four seasons in one day. It’s not unusual for temperatures to start at freezing in the morning and rapidly climb to 40°C in the afternoon. In the winter, however, temperatures remain intensely cold, made to feel even colder by the fierce winds. This region is mostly arid, with the lowest amount of rainfall in the north and west.
One of the biggest problems modern China is facing today is dangerously high levels of smog and air pollution. Not only is it depressing to see a hazy skyline — instead of blue skies during the day and stars at night — throughout much of the year, but the smog is also hazardous to human health. Learn more about common health risks in China from our guide.
China’s air pollution problem is mainly due to its rapid coal-powered industrialization as well as its millions of motor vehicles. Coal consumption releases lots of particulate matter into the air. These fine particles are particularly troublesome for people suffering from asthma and other respiratory conditions and can lead to shortness of breath and painful breathing. In the worst affected regions in China, this can even lead to lung cancer and premature death.
Particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) are the most damaging to human health. You can find the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) value online, which is based on the measurement of PM 2.5 particulates in the air. There are also various apps that predict what the AQI will be in the coming days to help you plan your next outing. It is advisable to wear a face mask outside on the days with the worst AQI and consider purchasing an air purifier for your home. The weather in China, and the smog levels, tend to be best in the spring and autumn.
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