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When the Hong Kong Observatory does such a good job, why do we complain so much about it?

November 19, 2021 GMT

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the Hong Kong Observatory’s dilemma whenever it comes to raising either a No 8 typhoon warning or a black rainstorm signal.

Some believe that these weather warnings are tied to economics rather than science, as they also signal the shuttering of most businesses and a halt to trading on the HK$45.3 trillion (US$5.8 trillion) Hong Kong stock exchange.

However, the Observatory uses strict criteria to guide the typhoon warning system, such as distance from Hong Kong, speed of sustained winds and speed of gusts. Rainstorm warning signals are determined by the amount of rainfall in wide areas of the city. Just like elsewhere, Hong Kong prioritises public safety over economics.

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Inevitably though, controversy surrounds the timing of when rainstorm and typhoon signals are hoisted, as if the Observatory can actually “schedule” the weather.

This year’s first black rainstorm warning was raised at 8.20am on a Monday, and the Observatory was criticised for raising it too late. Children were already at school and had to be taken home during heavy rain, and most people were already commuting to their workplace.

Then, the Observatory was faulted for keeping the No 8 typhoon signal up for more than 23 hours for Typhoon Kompasu, which resulted in the cancellation of stock exchange trading and a Hong Kong Jockey Club race meeting.

The resulting economic loss was estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Some people complained that it seemed to be quite calm where they were and that it wasn’t necessary to paralyse the entire city.

However, depending on a typhoon’s direction, area of city and location of the person in question, one person’s experience of a typhoon can be completely different from another’s.

Accurate forecasts for fast-changing and small-scale weather phenomena such as typhoons and torrential rain can be difficult at best. Add in Hong Kong’s hilly terrain, proximity to the ocean, and exposure to both tropical and extratropical weather systems, and the task becomes that much harder.

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Climate change and monsoon winds further complicate the picture, making predictions of typhoons increasingly challenging.

Closely related to typhoons is the perception of an unexpected “holiday”. In the so-called old days (before laptops and smartphones), a typhoon day meant a day off for most working people as they were unable to work from home. But technology has changed everything.

It seems almost inconceivable that the first iPhone was released just 14 years ago, around the time smartphones hit the mainstream. Together with portable laptops, this opened up the possibility of working from anywhere with an internet connection.

This capability to work remotely, even from home, advanced quickly during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the government and companies implemented work-from-home policies.

To set the record straight, No 8 typhoon and black rainstorm days do not qualify as statutory holidays. There is no ordinance that regulates work arrangements when such weather signals are in force, only a code of practice by the Labour Department saying that non-essential employees should stay at home. Essential employees can still be asked to turn up for work.

Despite all the complaining, the Observatory has consistently scored around 80 per cent in the public’s perception of the accuracy of its forecasts over the past 20 years. Yet its forecast accuracy is even higher ” last year, this was objectively verified to be 92 per cent. Even better, ship captains assessed the Observatory to be 97 per cent accurate, and airline operators gave it a 99 per cent accuracy rating.

Moreover, the Observatory is a pioneer. Its FlightWx weather app, for flight crews using Hong Kong airport, provides the latest weather information and is “the world’s first electronic flight bag weather app developed by a meteorological authority”, according to Observatory director Shun Chi-ming.

Its upper air observing station was recently recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as the world’s first centennial upper air observing station. Last year, the MyObservatory mobile app won an award for its content ” judged to be the most useful and reliable, among other things ” at the WMO international weather app competition.

As we all know, the weather is the safest subject in the world to talk about and everyone talks about it. So, perhaps that is the real reason behind faultfinding with the Observatory?

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.