BEIJING Fifty-six Chinese fishermen were missing on Friday as a typhoon bore down on the southern resort island of Hainan which state media said was the earliest to threaten the region in decades and may well be the strongest.
The fishermen were taking shelter near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and had not been heard from since Thursday evening, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Hainan and the neighbouring province of Guangdong are braced for Typhoon Neoguri, the first of the year, with almost 22,000 fishing boats having been called back to harbour as the storm skirted Vietnam.
"Neoguri will be the earliest typhoon of the season to affect the south China region since the founding of new China in 1949," Chen Lei, deputy commander of the State Headquarters of Flood Control and Drought Relief, was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
The storm was expected to be "one of the strongest in history" to hit the region, Xinhua said.
Typhoon tracker Tropical Storm Risk labelled the storm as category two in a scale up to five, with maximum sustained winds of 96-110 miles per hour (154-177 kph).
The typhoon is expected to drop 40 mm (one and a half inches) to 90 mm of rain on Hainan and Guangdong. "The heaviest downfall is expected to be 180 mm in southern Hainan," Xinhua said.
More than 120,000 people have already been evacuated in Hainan, and the storm is expected to make landfall on the northeast coast of the island in the early hours of Saturday, the report added.
Chinese scientists have blamed global warming for increasing weather extremes, including devastating typhoons, snow storms, floods and drought, which they say are likely to get worse.
Typhoons, known in the West as hurricanes, are cyclonic storms which draw strength from the warm waters of the South China Sea and regularly target the Philippines, Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong over the summer, sometimes with catastrophic effect.
The typhoon season usually starts in May.
China's far-western region of Xinjiang experienced blizzards, which have forced roads, airports and railways to close, stranding thousands, Xinhua added.
"The meteorological bureau has forecast continued wind and snow in most parts of Xinjiang through Sunday," it said.
(Reporting by Nick Macfie and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Valerie Lee)