The Shanghai Snows of Yesteryear
January 25, 2018: As a rare snow falls in Shanghai today, we thought it a good time to look back on the snows of Shanghai past, with this reprise of our post from January 31, 2008 on the Great Snow of that year.
Shanghai’s climate is notorious for its steamy summers, bone-chilling winters and the uncomfortable “Plum Rains” every June. One thing it is not known for is snow, of which it gets very little. When it snows in Shanghai, it is a big deal. Children irk their teachers by running to the windows to take a look. Stock market crises take page two, bumped by splashy headlines about what usually amounts to a dusting of the white stuff. And traffic – on the best of days a free-for-all – becomes all-out chaos.
The four straight days of snow we experienced from 26-29 January 2008 qualified as a once-a-century event, and deserved the headlines that it precipitated. Indeed, so calamitous was this snow, brought on by La Nina and an unusual atmospheric circulation, that it has its own Wikipedia page: 2008 Chinese Winter Storms.
Records of Shanghai’s weather since the mid-1800s are surprisingly complete, in part because of the good work of the scholarly Jesuit fathers at the Siccawei Observatory, whose weather reports were transmitted by telegraph to the Bund (see the photo below of a snowy Bund day, circa early 1900s). There, semaphores were hoisted at the Gutzlaff Tower to inform ships at anchor in the Whangpoo of impending conditions.
The Shanghai Municipal Council, the extremely organized body that governed the International Settlement, produced a summary of each day’s weather in its annual work report, in an exceedingly clever one-page chart, like this one:
Each day was divided into four quadrants, representing the hours 6:00 am to 6:00 pm in three-hour periods. A circle represented dry weather; the letter “R” rain; “F” for frost; and “S” for snow. Thus we know that in 1920, it snowed in Shanghai on February 2 and 21, and again on March 2 – but just briefly. And if it was like most of our experiences in the last several decades, it probably didn’t “stick” for very long, if at all. So “The Great Snow of 2008” deserves its place in our memories – and in Shanghai history. – Patrick Cranley