China ice festival feels heat from climate change

HARBIN, China (Reuters) - Chinese scientists have warned that climate change is hurting the most famous draw in the northern city of Harbin -- its annual ice sculpture contest.

Tourists walk past a giant ice sculpture of the pagodas at the Ice and Snow World in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, January 5, 2008. REUTERS/Aly Song

Average annual temperatures in the city perched on the edge of Siberia hit 6.6 degrees Celsius (44 Fahrenheit) last year, the highest average since records began, and the ice sculptures are feeling the heat.

“In the beginning of December 2002, ice lanterns in Harbin melted right after they were sculpted. What came out of the work was sweaty ice sculptures,” Yin Xuemian, senior meteorologist at the Heilongjiang Observatory, told Reuters.

Problems got worse in 2006.

“Lots of money and energy were spent on redoing the sculptures. As the temperature rises, the period of ice and snow activities have shortened dramatically.”

China has blamed global warming for growing water shortages around the country that have been taking their toll on rice cultivation. Climate change is also shrinking the country’s high altitude glaciers.

“Global warming was only something people talked about. But it’s when we take a look at documents, statistics and the actual change of climate that we realize how alarming it can be,” said Yin. “The average temperature of winter in Harbin is 5 degrees Celsius higher than historical records.”

Despite the changes in temperatures and patterns of drought and flooding around the country, China, which is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, has resisted setting firm caps on its emissions growth.

Instead, it says rich countries must take the lead in fighting climate change and do more to transfer clean-energy technologies to the developing world.

Far from the global debates about how to curb climate change, participants in Harbin’s festival have more immediate concerns: how to keep their creations from melting.

“We are worried that the thing will collapse. We tried to readjust a little bit,” said one Malaysian participant chipping away at a hunk of ice.

A Chinese Canadian participant said he was feeling the same changes in his adopted country.

“When I first got to Canada, it was so cold. But now, it’s getting much warmer,” he said. “Maybe slowly, Vancouver will become Hong Kong.”

Writing by Lindsay Beck; Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani