All at sea with a dotty false alarm
By JESSICA CARTER
SHIPS between Hongkong and the Philippines battened down the hatches yesterday when the Hongkong Royal Observatory issued a tropical cyclone warning by mistake - all because someone erased the wrong dot on a word processor.
And in time-honoured tradition, red-faced senior scientific officer Leung Wing-mo blamed it on the weather.
The false alarm was raised at about 8 am and ships remained on alert for two hours before the error was spotted and an amended weather bulletin broadcast.
Mr Leung said the mistake was not the result of a deceptive meteorological satellite photograph or incorrect weather forecast.
''We have a prepared bulletin with all the information on it. Each line has a dot preceding it, and if the dot is in place, the line is not included on a print-out,'' he said.
''When we issue bulletins, we delete the dots in front of the relevant weather conditions, so that only those are printed out.
''This morning, the bulletin was prepared by a junior officer who accidentally erased the dot preceding the tropical cyclone warning.
''Normally, the final product is checked by a supervisor. Obviously it wasn't checked thoroughly enough. An amended bulletin was issued after a supervisor spotted the mistake.'' Mr Leung blamed recent good weather for the error. He said sunny skies might have lulled weathermen into a false sense of security and made them lax about checking bulletins.
''We have been having good weather, and I think people may have become less observant. If we had severe weather, bulletins would be checked not just by a supervisor but also by more senior staff.
He said the Royal Observatory had a special division set up to look into improving the accuracy and dissemination of information, and said it would be looking into the case.
He said the officer responsible had admitted his mistake and apologised, adding that he would be monitored more closely in future.
In his experience, he said, it was the first time in 10 years such a mistake had been made at the Royal Observatory.