Observatory at the centre of a storm
After the storm comes the calm, so the saying goes. But what we experienced on Thursday was not much of a storm. The public can be excused for wondering whether the city was unnecessarily brought to a near standstill as Linfa passed by without wreaking havoc. There were no downpour or the gale-force winds that are typical of a signal No 8 typhoon. The day could have been easily passed off as just another one with unstable weather had there not been a mass rush home and severe disruptions to air, sea and land transport.
Unsurprisingly, the weatherman was criticised yesterday with many people puzzled over why the city had been almost shut down for what appeared to be one of the weakest typhoons in memory. In fact, data recorded by monitoring stations showed winds did not reach the strength of those of a No 8 storm during the almost six hours the signal was raised.
Defending the decision, the Hong Kong Observatory said data gathered on a Government Flying Service plane near the storm on Thursday morning showed it might even warrant signal No 10. But the storm weakened much faster than expected as its moisture was absorbed by dry air on land. As the city was shielded by mountainous areas in the north, wind speeds in the urban area were not as strong, it explained.
Weather can be treacherous and difficult to predict, even more so when global warming and other extreme conditions are involved. We trust the Observatory has the technology and know-how to help determine which signal should be issued. But in the case of Linfa, there was a significant gap between the forecast and what people actually experienced.
Given that the economic productivity lost during typhoons can be significant, the Observatory's decisions are bound to be controversial. That said, it is expected to make professional judgments based on scientific data and reliable technologies. The latest controversy has provided another opportunity for officials to reflect on its approach and try to make people more aware of the considerations behind its decisions.