502 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

In the film satire, The Weather Man, downtrodden TV meteorologist Dave Spritz - played by Nicolas Cage - is often struck by fast food thrown by viewers who recognise him in the street.

'It's always fast food. Things that people would rather throw out than finish. It's easy, it tastes all right, but it doesn't really provide you with any nourishment. I'm fast food,' complains the battered and stained celebrity weather guy.

China's forecasters suffered similar indignity this week - but the objects hurled at them were verbal and written complaints about their wild inaccuracies. Like most government institutions in China, the country's meteorology department is expected to get things right all the time. After all, the Communist Party uses its well-honed propaganda machine to convince the populace from the cradle to the grave it is in control of all phenomena, real, imagined, human-made and natural.

So you can imagine the backlash when the weather comrades promised a warm and sunny start to spring and said it was time to pack away the thermals and cat fur-lined boots and shake out the T-shirts and flip-flops.

The elderly - who had been cooped up for the six long winter months - were led out on to the quads to sun themselves along with the barking dogs and take deep gulps of the seasonal change.

The Beijing Meteorological Station predicted last Tuesday's temperature to top 12 degrees Celsius, very nice for the time of year, indeed.

But the mercury barely nudged six degrees - and faces turned red with anger as the shivering masses fumed.

The weather then blew hot and cold for three days, outsmarting the weather men. Whatever they predicted, Mother Nature did the exactly the opposite. Now the profession is wallowing under a brooding cloud of crisis cast by disgruntled citizens and angst-ridden government officials. The latter are worried sick that the much-lauded world summer party of 2008 might be blighted by a surprise blizzard, let alone a washout. Millions of yuan have been spent to get it right, but they've seemingly bought a whole lot of wrong.

Zhang Jing, an office employee, complained that she caught a cold because she put too much trust in the forecasters. 'I put away my woolly underclothes after hearing the weather forecast on Tuesday and I went back home after work with a runny nose,' Zhang said with a sniffle. Blogs went into meltdown. The general consensus was the weather bureau is but 'a waste of money' that 'is right only about half the time'.

Humbled like a magician exposed, the meteorology bureau quickly issued an apology to the public on Thursday - and vowed with weathervane on heart to try and improve their accuracy for the 2008 Olympics. After all, the last thing the government wants after closing all the factories, banning the beloved car and fining people for spitting and queue jumping, is for it to start raining cats and dogs, hail, snow and sand during the opening ceremony.

'Accurate weather forecasting will play a key role in hosting a successful Olympic Games and we started preparations in 2002 to improve our accuracy,' Beijing Meteorological Observatory director Ding Deping was quoted as saying.

Weather is, like most aspects of life, a highly politicised issue in China. In most public housing complexes, the heating is turned on and off on exact days of the year and regulated by jobsworth community officials. If it's too hot or cold before or after these dates - tough luck.

And most suspect forecasters of understating summer temperatures to avoid implementing rules that decree sweltering workers are ordered home during heatwaves.

Moreover, the games will play out when Beijing can be at its wettest. It will be at its most humid and most unpredictable.

'Beijing's weather is very changeable in July and August and it will pose a big challenge for Chinese meteorologists to forecast correctly during the Olympics,' Ding added.

The government weather guys have thus drafted an 'Olympics Weather Plan'.

A high-tech radar will be used to produce updated weather maps every 30 minutes and a disaster warning system will operate in good old real time. One hundred and sixty-four monitoring stations will be in operation across the city.

Along with temperature, wind speed and cloud cover, the bureau aims to forecast the timing and intensity of rainfall to within one square kilometre, for nothing reassures the masses more than the release of lots of baffling data.

'Issuing weather forecasts during the Olympics will be very labour intensive and will require considerable expertise by local forecasters. But a shortage of skilled weathermen will be a major hindrance,' the Beijing bureau's deputy chief engineer Wang Yubin warned.

State news agency Xinhua said hundreds of experienced weathermen 'will be loaned' to the Beijing Meteorological Bureau to cope with the Olympics' isobars, barometers and storm watches.

We, the sneezing and confused, are not deemed worthy enough to be told where these experts will come from or what their predictability credentials are.

Last year, this columnist told through the news pages of the South China Morning Post how the Communist Party officials hope to play weather god during the games with artillery guns.

Ack-ack guns stationed on the outskirts of the city will blast approaching rain clouds out of the sky with shells loaded with seeding chemicals.

But for all the high-tech approach, the weather remains a fickle old thing, 'whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not' as the old saying goes. So the drafted weathermen might want to carry with them an umbrella to the capital - just in case it starts to rain Beijing duck, KFC chicken bones and dumplings in August 2008.