Unusually early snow storms in north-central China have claimed 40 lives, caused thousands of buildings to collapse and destroyed almost 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of winter crops, the Civil Affairs Ministry said Friday.
Nineteen of the deaths resulted from traffic accidents related to the storms that began Nov. 9, the ministry said in a statement on its Web site.
The snowfall is the heaviest in the northern and central provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Shandong and Henan since record keeping began after the establishment of the Communist state in 1949, the ministry said without giving detailed figures. It estimated economic losses from the storm at 4.5 billion yuan (US$659 million).
Chinese state media say some of the snow was induced through cloud seeding, although the precise amount of snowfall in all areas was not reported and it wasn't clear what the previous records were.
Hebei's provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, received the heaviest snowfall. In the three days ending Thursday morning, the snow accumulation there reached 1.8 feet (55 centimeters), the heaviest since 1955, the China Meteorological Administration said Saturday.
More than 7.5 million people have been stranded or otherwise affected by the storms, which caused the collapse of more than 9,000 buildings, damaged 470,000 acres (190,000 hectares) of crops, and forced the evacuation of 158,000 people, the ministry said.
State media have reported at least two deaths were caused by the collapse of buildings, including a school cafeteria.
Beijing has been hit by three successive waves of snow, causing havoc on roadways and forcing the cancellation or delay of scores of flights.
The capital and surrounding areas are little prepared to deal with such heavy snow, with few plows or road deicing supplies. Snow tires and chains are almost unknown and many drivers simply leave their cars at home and turn to public transport in such conditions.
The impact has been far greater in the surrounding provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Shandong and Henan, where highways have been closed, schools shuttered, and crews sent to rescue people in their snowbound homes.
Freak snow and ice storms last year hit parts of eastern and southern China unaccustomed to such weather. Those storms paralyzed key transport systems just as millions of migrant workers were heading home for the Lunar New Year holiday, leading to more than 80 deaths and billions of dollars in damage.