Caught in two storms: Observatory and its dilemma of forecasting

August 04, 2017 15:51
Observatory director Shun Chi-ming more than tracks storms. He also has to maintain his professionalism and a cool head amid rising public expectations regarding weather forecasting. Photo: HKEJ

The Hong Kong Observatory usually finds itself in the eye of two storms.

While tracking one in the real world, the meteorological agency may also be deluged in the cyber domain, whenever netizens rant about, for instance, the Observatory’s belated typhoon or rainstorm warnings when people are forced to report to work under hazardous conditions.

The same thing happens when the Observatory seems to time the cancellation of these warnings so as to keep the wheels of business turning even when people are relishing their extra time off work.

Observatory director Shun Chi-ming and his team can always expect phone calls from quarrelsome complainants, with some challenging the justifications for a particular weather warning and others lambasting why they don’t hoist the warning they expect.

Shun told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that they would never let the public’s misunderstanding or misperception rankle in their mind. “We have to stay cool when making storm-related decisions, decisions based on science, facts, professionalism and nothing else.”

The Observatory is out of the sight of the public -- as long as the weather is fine -- so much so that many are not aware that its head office has been cloistered in a colonnaded edifice in the heart of bustling Tsim Sha Tsui for 134 years.

The grand Victorian colonial mansion with arched verandahs and its adjacent blocks house some of the world’s most advanced meteorological devices and computers, a nerve center of Hong Kong’s disaster warning and prevention system, surrounded by restaurants, bars and night clubs.

Perfect storms 

Shun joined the Observatory in 1986 after graduation from the University of Hong Kong and was appointed as the 15th director in 2011. He also chairs a United Nations World Meteorological Organization panel on meteorological services to aviation.

One of the highlights of his career was a No. 10 Hurricane Signal, the highest warning level, that he decided to issue in the wee hours of July 24, 2012, the only one of its category so far in the new millennium, when Super Typhoon Vicente skirted the city with downpour and gales reaching 120 kilometers per hour.

But even Vicente pales in comparison with Severe Tropical Storm Utor in Shun’s own list of the most powerful typhoons and hurricanes he has dealt with.

Utor brought the city, in particular its airport, to a standstill in July 2001 amid torrential rain and squalls that continued to whip Hong Kong hours after it shot over the territory and made landfall in Guangxi several hundred kilometers away. In a span of 14 hours, the Observatory had to issue three No. 8 storm signals as gales blew from changing directions due to Utor’s erratic path.

Utor was a reminder that even in this digital day and age, weather forecasting is an inexact science.

Prank or caveat

Shun said the public may start to wonder if it’s a prank from the meteorologists each time the weather remains fine despite a No. 8 signal. This may happen when a hurricane approaches the city from the mountainous east, and usually the scenario may turn out to be just a tempest in a teapot, as seen from past experience.

Yet, Hong Kong must brace for fast deteriorating weather and howling winds and rains if there’s a hurricane coming from the west.

There have also been calls that the timing of weather warnings must be flexible to serve the convenience of the public.

“But when is the best time to issue a warning? Take red rainstorm warnings as an example. Some parents may complain why the Observatory issues a warming this late, when their kids are almost halfway to school and may be left stranded, but others ask why the Observatory issues such a warning at all, as their kids won’t be attended by anyone when the schools are closed,” said Shun, who has to deal with the dilemma whenever the wind shifts direction, along with the public’s rising expectations.

“The best policy is to shut all of these out of your mind and make decisions on facts only.”

The last time Hong Kong was devastated by a super typhoon was 55 years ago, in August 1962, when Wanda wrought havoc on the territory and claimed 183 lives.

Hong Kong has since then seen tremendous modernization in its infrastructure, emergency response and weather forecasting, aspects now all within the world’s top league. Not a single super hurricane has battered the city head on in the decades to today, when neighboring areas lurch from storm to storm.

Shun is thus worried that the public may have taken their safety for granted during adverse weather when some parents even take their kids to the beach or shores or high grounds for fun.

Neither is he confident that Hong Kong can survive another Wanda-like monster storm unscathed. The inconvenient truth is that we are more vulnerable to weather calamities than most people think, thus vigilance must prevail at all times.

Shun has a bedroom and shower next door to his office, not for extra comfort but for round-the-clock work whenever there’s a typhoon or rainstorm.

But the truth is that he can rarely expect to actually use his private bedroom in such circumstances during typhoon season when he and his team would be busy reading satellite images and analyzing data.

Rainy days

Other than typhoons and hurricanes, Shun and his Observatory are also on the receiving end of jibes when it comes to forecasting some seemingly easy weather conditions like rain.

“It also baffles me why Hong Kong is usually hit by showers or squally rains in the morning, in particular in May and June, when everybody is on the way to school or work.

“Some blame us for being unable to issue rain warnings in the first place. And, given Hong Kong’s rugged terrain, when it’s raining cats and dogs in Sai Kung, it may still be sunny in Tsim Sha Tsui, and of course, some people may think our forecasts are lousy,” Shun said with a wry smile.

Since last year, the Observatory has implemented a trail district-based rain warning scheme: you get a bring-along-an-umbrella reminder on your phone or smartwatch if rain is coming to your place. Rain gauges and other devices are also installed at over 100 schools across the territory for more accurate forecasting.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 2

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Read more:

How Hong Kong stays safe during typhoons and rainstorms

Signaling problem: Why the Observatory still doesn’t get it

Hong Kong Observatory: A century of storm signalling

Shun Chi-ming shows an old storm and hurricane warming leaflet distributed to residents during the old days when there was no TV or smartphone. Photo: HKEJ
The 134-year-old Hong Kong Observatory has evolved with the times and technology. Shun Chi-ming shows a smartphone-based weather app. Photo: HKEJ
The current regime of warning signals was introduced in the 1970s. Photo: HK Observatory
The Observatory's central meeting room is the nerve center of Hong Kong's disaster warning and prevention system. Photo: HK Observatory
The Hong Kong Observatory Headquarters building in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Kfsung/Wikimedia

HKEJ writer