China’s Heat Wave Was a Frightening Vision of Earth’s Future

We drove through normally verdant farmland toward Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, passing miles of withered cornfields and bumper-to-bumper traffic that flowed in the opposite direction toward the mountains. With hydropower output crippled, authorities had imposed power-saving blackouts that idled businesses and rendered air-conditioners useless. People were fleeing to higher, cooler ground.

Subway stations were blacked out. At night, buildings were darkened and streetlights were dimmed. We fled the deserted streets one day for refuge in a mall, hoping to cool down, but restrictions on electricity had left it as hot and humid as the outdoors.

A city of more than 20 million people had become practically unlivable.

It wasn’t the only one. At least 262 weather stations nationwide tied or set new heat records, and rivers that are important arteries for shipping and transportation became unnavigable. Water levels in the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river, hit record lows, dropping as much as 20 feet below recent averages.

Chickens died or struggled to lay eggs, pigs were hosed down by fire trucks to keep them cool and Sichuan’s famed pandas lay on blocks of ice. People hoisted food to their apartments using buckets and ropes because the power blackouts had left elevators idled. Some simply fled to underground tunnels to stay cool.

Chinese people have a phrase, the “Three Furnaces of China,” that refers to a trio cities — Chongqing, Nanjing and Wuhan — that are best avoided during their notoriously sweltering summers. But in the torrid summer of 2022, half of China turned into a giant oven.

Although situated in a more moderate coastal climate, Shanghai offered little respite on our return home. The mercury had soared in China’s largest city this summer, repeatedly surging past 100 degrees Fahrenheit and causing authorities to issue multiple public safety alerts for extreme heat. There was little you could do but huddle at home, running the air-conditioner full-blast, which we’d done almost nonstop since June. I’ve lived in China for several years, and each summer has seemed worse than the last.

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