Inside the Weather Underground: meet Clarence Fong, Hong Kong’s own independent forecaster

Clarence Fong left the Observatory to form his own Weather Underground website in 1995 and pursue his mission of better informing the Hong Kong public

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 10:05am

On July 26, 1978, Hongkongers breathed a sigh of relief as Typhoon Agnes – heading straight for Guangdong in the South China Sea – swerved west and away from the British colony just 80km south of the coast.

But Agnes stunned the public when it made a sudden U-turn, or “cyclonic loop”, near Hainan Island and came charging back. The No 8 storm signal was raised for the second time in a week.

Heavy rain from the storm damaged 1,000 hectares of crops across the New Territories. A woman was killed in a landslide and two people drowned in a taxi “when it plunged into a pool of standing water”, according to a Royal Observatory report. More than 100 casualties were reported.

READ MORE: Hong Kong officials issue third cold weather warning as intense winter monsoon brings the chill

Glued to the radio throughout the storm was awestruck seven-year-old Clarence Fong Chi-kong, who began recording Agnes’ movements on a weather map. Over time he would do the same for all storms that hit Hong Kong, complete with his own observations and forecasts.

Storm chasing quickly became a hobby. Improving forecasts became a mission.

As a secondary school pupil, Fong wrote his first forecasting system using BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) with his first computer, an Apple IIe. After graduating from Chinese University with a computer science degree he scored a job as an experimental officer with the Observatory, only to leave after three years citing a conflict between his job and his interest.

“Sometimes you will see decision-making which is not truly scientific. If you want it to be scientific, make it your interest,” Fong told the Post in 2003.

He went on to found the well-known Weather Underground of Hong Kong website in 1995, at the advent of the internet, and years before the Observatory went online with its own webpage.

The primary aim of Weather Underground, Fong said, was to share data and information – an email list was used before the website was created – about storm and weather events to other weather enthusiasts and experts.

READ MORE: Chilly weather on the way: forecasts suggest Hong Kong could be hit by a ‘super cold front’ in March

But Fong found himself providing an even more important public service – monitoring the performance of the Observatory. Fong has never shied away from expressing a healthy scepticism of the government forecaster’s warning systems and response mechanisms. The website even has a section assessing the accuracy of official forecasts. His belief that typhoon warning signals are strongly influenced by commercial “interests” is shared by many.

Fong says Weather Underground has been able to change perceptions and appreciation of weather in Hong Kong. The checking and balancing seems to have paid off.

“The Observatory started to release more information on their website since the establishment of Weather Underground,” says Fong. “More people have become aware of and interested in weather.”

After Typhoon Prapiroon hit in 2006, Fong was thrust into the spotlight after criticising the Observatory’s old typhoon warning system as “not representative or valid”. The system was later revised under mounting public pressure.

Fong still takes pride in Weather Underground’s position as an “independent” source of weather information free from the constraints of bureaucracy. But he admits that its focus has since shifted from monitoring the Observatory’s performance to raising public education.

It still hosts an immensely popular discussion forum and Facebook page boasting over 100,000 followers. Weather Underground has even become a close partner of the Observatory.

“The Weather Underground and HKO monitor the same sky with the same data, so we are not enemies,” he says.

“However, some decision-making by HKO is controversial and we will voice out our views when necessary.”

Fong brings up the cold snap on January 24, which saw temperatures drop as low as 3.1 degrees Celsius, more than five degrees lower than what was originally predicted by the Observatory and the lowest reading in the city since 1957. The Observatory was widely slammed for its inaccurate prediction.

“The Observatory received the major numerical forecasts we did but they did not present it good enough, for example, mentioning probabilities or alternative scenarios,” Fong says. “There is still room for improving their presentation skills.”

The event also brought to light the growing role of unofficial online forecasters, some of whom predicted the temperature with more success than the Observatory. Fong says anyone who is interested can monitor and forecast weather.

READ MORE: ‘Intense’ polar vortex could bring ice storm to New Territories: chill running through Hong Kong expected to last a week

But interpreting and presenting data in an objective way is still a skill that requires a degree of professionalism and he encourages those who do not have the expertise to continue using the Observatory forecasts.

“This is an important learning process. However, the comments should be scientific and objective, not subjective with personal preference or even exaggerated to attract people’s attention or hit rates,” he says.

“The general public in Hong Kong do not have the knowledge to interpret unofficial weather information, therefore the Observatory still plays an important role in delivering messages and conducting public education.”

At 45, Fong says he doesn’t chase storms as often now – he has a wife and daughter. But he remains the same passionate lover of storms as he was as a boy charting storms behind a radio set. He still helps weather services improve their forecasts and save lives.

Last year he joined the Macau-based Typhoon Committee of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and World Meteorological Organisation Tropical Cyclone Programme, an intergovernmental regional body, as a meteorologist.

“My job is to encourage strong collaboration between members so they can benefit with better forecasts and disaster-risk reductions, to save more lives and reduce economic and social loss.

Clarence Fong Chi-kong

Age: 45

Education:Bachelor in computer science, Chinese University

Master of Statistics, University of Hong Kong

Career:

Experimental officer at Hong Kong Observatory, 1993-1996

Founder of Weather Underground of Hong Kong

Meteorologist at UN ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee, 2015 -present