Hong Kong weather

How the Hong Kong Observatory slipped up by not warning us about the big chill

Alice Wu says the government weather forecasters left the city exposed and unprepared by not considering that other predictions of freezing temperatures could be right

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 5:05pm

The Hong Kong Observatory is responsible for more than just monitoring and predicting the weather. While Hong Kong meteorologists may have described weather forecasting as an “imperfect science”, the recent big chill and the havoc it caused is a perfect illustration of how the Observatory failed in its very important job of issuing warnings on weather-related hazards, and how that snowballed into man-made havoc.

We get it, weather forecasting isn’t an exact science. But the fact the Observatory spent time refuting other forecasts only made matters worse, when it should have at least considered the possibility that they might be right and, most importantly, warned the public and other government departments of how bad things could get. If it had been less wide of the mark, or had entertained the notion that it could be a few degrees colder, we would all have been better prepared.

It could have been educating people about the hazards of severe weather conditions; wind chill and rain are important factors, not to mention the dangers of frost and icy roads.

READ MORE: Freeze frame! Images of Hong Kong’s chilling return to work on Monday, inside the polar vortex

The public was not sufficiently warned of the dangers of chasing frost. We were lucky that the worst-case scenario – vehicles full of people skidding into trees and each other – did not happen, but Hong Kong motorists do not have snow chains or the knowledge of how to drive in snow and ice. Roads become extremely dangerous in icy conditions. And, as hordes of frost chasers, many in their cars, headed up to Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, there was too little said to warn them of the dangers. Roads were only closed after hundreds became stuck as rescue operations struggled to cope. The Fire Department only went on television to ask people not to head into the hills on Sunday morning, much too late.

Scenes of people, including rescue personnel, slipping and sliding on Tai Mo Shan and elsewhere may have been amusing to watch on screen, but sub-zero temperatures and extreme weather conditions are no joke. We should have been talking about the risks of exposure – frostnip, frostbite and even hypothermia – on top of injuries that can occur from slipping on the ice.

Many have questioned whether our firefighters, medical personnel and police officers should be better trained. That’s a valid question, but a better one would be whether, as “imperfect” as the science of forecasting weather is, the Observatory played a crucial role in our unpreparedness. People should have been properly warned of the potential dangers. Homeless shelters should have been open during the day, not only at night. The decision to suspend schools should have been made earlier so parents had time to make plans to care for their young children.

It is true that the Observatory can’t close roads or schools, but other government departments make decisions based on its official forecasts. Those decisions could have been made earlier, if the Observatory had not insisted on its higher temperature forecasts. The first line of defence against extreme weather, and the test of how this city responds to them, is accurate forecasts. People must be given reliable information to make informed decisions.

By the time it realised those others forecasts were right on the chill factor, the Observatory was too caught up with refuting claims of snow falling. Certainly, it did itself no favours by trying to defend its credibility. The only way to do that is by recognising that its interpretation of the data didn’t serve its purpose – ultimately, to protect people.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA