© Agence France-PresseTemperatures could fall as low as -16 degrees in Beijing over the next few days
A freezing front swept over much of northern China Sunday with snowstorms snarling road and air traffic, schools set to stay closed, and some of the lowest temperatures in decades forecast in coming days.

Snow storms were expected to continue through Monday and the mercury was set to plunge in the next 48 hours when China returns to work following a three-day New Year holiday, the Beijing meteorological station said.

Gale force winds sweeping down from Siberia could result in temperatures as low as minus 16 degrees Celsius (three degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital on Monday and Tuesday, it added.

In some parts of northern China temperatures were expected to drop as low as minus 32 degrees Celsius.

Classes at primary and middle schools in Beijing and nearby Tianjin would be suspended on Monday, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Heavy snows hampered traffic at Beijing Capital Airport where about 90 percent of all flights were delayed or cancelled on Sunday, the last day of the holiday, China Central Television said.

Over 500 flights were delayed and about 400 flights were cancelled, stranding thousands of passengers, it said.

To ensure safety under the snowy, icy and foggy conditions, only one of the airport's three runways was in operation, reports said.

Inbound and outgoing flights at other airports in northern China were also experiencing delays and cancellations, they said.

With Beijing set to return to work, the head of its traffic management office, Song Jianguo, said 7,000 traffic police would be deployed for Monday's morning rush hour, along with 5,000 volunteers to maintain order at crowded bus stops, Xinhua reported.

The city authorities had mobilised a vast army of 300,000 people to clear snow, the agency added.

Major highways in Beijing and Tianjin, as well as in the surrounding provinces and regions of Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia were closed due to the heavy snowfall earlier Sunday, but some roads opened later in the day, China Central Television said.

Long-distance bus travel in north China was also being hampered by the weather, reports said.

With snows expected to continue in the region throughout the night, traffic was likely to become even more snarled when the nation returns to work, the reports said.

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry said it had dispatched teams of experts to farming areas to advise farmers on how to protect their crops in the extreme cold weather.