East Asia: Climate and Vegetation

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Kublai Khan was the ruler of the Mongol Empire (which included China) in the 13th century. In 1281, the Great Khan sent a huge fleet against Japan. A typhoon—a tropical storm that occurs in the western Pacific—swept across the Sea of Japan and sank the Mongol ships or dashed them against the rocky Japanese shore. The typhoon had changed the course of history. Typhoons occur in parts of East Asia, but in other ways the weather is similar to that of the United States. Both are at the same latitude, and both have similar climate zones.

High Latitude Climate Zones

The climates in the highest latitudes present a serious challenge to all but the most hardy nomads and herders. These zones generally have severely cold climates. In addition, they tend to be very dry.


Subarctic climate zones occur in a small sliver along Mongolia's and China's northern borders with Russia. The summers in these areas range from cool to cold. The winters are brutally cold, testing the survival skills of the inhabitants. The climate is generally dry.

The typical vegetation of this region is the northern evergreen forest. Varieties of mosses and lichens also grow on rocks and tree trunks throughout subarctic zones.


Highland climates are found mostly in western China. The temperature in highland zones varies with latitude and elevation. In general, the farther north the latitude and the higher the elevation, the colder the climate. The severe climate and topography of the western highlands are two of the reasons that the area is sparsely populated.

The vegetation in the highlands also varies with elevation. Forests and alpine tundra are the typical vegetation. Vast tundras reach as far as the eye can see. Tundras have no trees, and the soil a few feet below the surface is permanently frozen. In this environment, only mosses, lichens, and shrubs can grow. Because of the cold and the difficulty of growing crops, few people scratch out a living here.

Climate Comparison, East Asia and North America

Mid-latitude Zones

Mid-latitude zones are much more comfortable to live in because of their moderate climates. The land is productive, and the rainfall is sufficient for agriculture. An important resource of these zones is their forests.


Northeastern China, North Korea, northern South Korea, and northern Japan all have humid continental climates. The forests of the region are mainly coniferous in the humid continental zone. Temperate grasslands ideal for grazing are also found in these areas. However, over the years agriculture has transformed the landscape and replaced many of the forests.


Southeastern China, southern South Korea, southern Japan, and northern Taiwan are in a humid subtropical zone. The forests in such zones are both deciduous and coniferous. The broad-leafed, deciduous trees are usually found in the north. The coniferous forests are especially typical of areas with sandy soils in the south. However, loggers and farmers have greatly reduced the forests in the southeast.

Dry Zones

Dry zones of the region include both steppes and deserts. There is relatively little vegetation. These zones are not well suited to agriculture and so have not been much settled by people. Instead, nomads have used the semiarid areas to graze livestock.


Parts of the Mongolian Plateau make up the semiarid zones of the region. The vegetation of semiarid zones consists mainly of short grasses, which provide food for grazing animals and livestock.


Most of the deserts in the region are found in the west central area of the mainland. The Taklimakan Desert is located in western China between the Tian Shan and Kunlun Mountains. The Gobi Desert is located in northern China and southeast Mongolia. The Gobi is a prime area for finding dinosaur fossils, since thousands of these animals roamed through the region millions of years ago.

Tropical Zones

The tropical zones of East Asia contain mainly wet climates.

The most common vegetation is the rain forest.


The tropical climate zone in East Asia is fairly small. It includes a small strip of land along China's southeastern coast, the island of Hainan, and the southern tip of Taiwan. These areas have high temperatures, heavy rainfall, and high humidity every month of the year. The tropical rain forest in these places is made up of tall dense forests of broadleaf trees.

In the next section, you will read how human-environment interactions affect the quality of life in rural China and urban Japan.