City Weekend

We’ve been lucky in recent decades – but it may not last, warns Hong Kong weather chief Shun Chi-ming

Public should no longer take typhoons and extreme events lightly, says Observatory boss

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2017, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 December, 2017, 7:12pm

The head of Hong Kong’s official weather forecaster has a stark warning for Hongkongers for the new year: “Hong Kong will not always be a blessed land.”

Despite being on track to break several weather records this year, Hong Kong Observatory chief Shun Chi-ming told the Post the city had been fortunate in the past few decades as it had mostly been sheltered from massive natural disasters.

But Shun said Hongkongers should no longer take typhoons and extreme weather events lightly, as more could strike with the impact of climate change continuing to sweep the globe.

“Hong Kong is clearly feeling the effects of climate change. Although some people still cast doubt on it, the scientific evidence is loud and clear,” he said.

Temperatures in the city reached 36.6 degrees Celsius on August 22, the highest recorded since the Observatory began compiling data in 1884. Hong Kong also broke the record for the highest annual number of warm nights – when temperatures surpass 28 degrees – with at least 41.

Hong Kong feels the heat as observatory issues second ‘very hot’ weather warning in October

A higher-than-normal nine tropical cyclones came within 500km of Hong Kong this year. Typhoon Hato, which warranted a typhoon signal No 10 – the highest in the city’s storm warning system – battered the city on August 23 and killed 10 people in the neighbouring casino hub of Macau.

The typhoon, which was later upgraded to the status of a super typhoon, also left a mark on Shun, as it was the second No 10 signal he had issued since becoming Observatory director in 2011.

Shun, 54, was the youngest Chinese to lead the Observatory when he took the helm six years ago.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Post, Shun talked about a number of issues; how Hong Kong narrowly avoided a calamity with Super Typhoon Hato, why the city is at the forefront of aviation weather forecasting and how his penchant for “chasing” typhoons as a teenager took him down a path to become the city’s top weatherman.

How was Super Typhoon Hato different from other typhoons that hit in recent years?

We knew that this typhoon was not like most typhoons that Hong Kong had seen in the last few years. That was because we knew it was coming from the most dangerous direction, which could seriously affect Hong Kong. It intensified over the south of Hong Kong and made landfall to the west. In recent years, most typhoons would land to the east, and the impact on the city was not as big.

It also happened to come closest to Hong Kong when the tide was at its highest, so we were also worried about whether the storm surge would cause casualties.

Can you describe what it was like during that evening when Super Typhoon Hato struck?

We started warning people about the typhoon the day before it hit and we usually stay until after a typhoon completely passes. I remember I didn’t sleep the entire night it approached Hong Kong. I took a rest in the dorm for an hour, took a shower, and then went back up to the control room ready for battle. I think it was about 40 hours before I could go home.

Were you worried at the time?

We were very worried. The typhoon was stronger than Typhoon Vicente – the last typhoon that warranted a signal No 10 in 2012 – and we knew that the storm surge was going to be very serious because it coincided exactly with when the tide was at its highest. According to our calculations, if Hato came just 20km closer – about the size of Lantau Island – the storm surge would have been higher than Super Typhoon Wanda in 1962, which left 130 people dead in Hong Kong and 72,000 people homeless.

Don’t blame observatory warning signals for Macau’s Typhoon Hato mess, former top Hong Kong weather official says

The storm surge reached a level of almost four metres at Victoria Harbour at the time. With Hato, it ended up being 3.57 metres.

We were actually mentally prepared to announce on television that it would be like the second coming of Super Typhoon Wanda if Hato got any closer. We were very lucky, we didn’t have to end up saying it.

Hong Kong has seen a number of record-breaking weather events this year, why is that and what kind of extreme weather events will we see in 2018?

Whether it’s higher temperatures, heavier rainfall, stronger typhoons – all of these are affected by global warming. But if you ask me what extreme weather will happen in 2018? It’s very difficult to predict. It’s all a matter of probability. The probability of extreme weather events is higher, but it all depends on whether different factors come together at the right place, at the right time.

Are Hong Kong people prepared for such extreme events or natural disasters?

The younger generation, even those who are 30 years old, have not experienced such disasters on the scale of Super Typhoon Wanda. Most of the focus now with typhoons is whether we get a holiday, whether we can sleep in, or if we can play mahjong overnight. They’re not very concerned about taking precautions. Despite our repeated warnings, many people still choose to go out to chase typhoons and the waves, some parents even bring their children as well. We see that society as a whole seems to take such things rather lightly. But Hong Kong will not always be a blessed land. We saw what happened to Macau. That could’ve been us if the storm was just 20km closer.

Did you like chasing typhoons when you were young?

I seldom went out of the house, so I didn’t go out and chase after typhoons in that sense. But when I was in secondary school, the radio would broadcast the latitude and longitude of the typhoon, the movement and the speed. I would sit next to the radio and use a map to plot the location of the tropical cyclone, and make projections. So then you could guess whether you would still have to go to school tomorrow, that was the fun.

How did it become your career?

I actually was discouraged by a lot of formulas, equations and calculations in school. But Professor Cheng Kai-ming, the former HKU pro-vice-chancellor, introduced me to some very interesting books about physics that got me to like the subject. Without him, I don’t think I had the fundamentals to get into meteorology. In university, I also took a class given by Lam Chiu-ying, a former director, on physics. Because of his class, I learned that physics could be applied in real life in predicting the weather.

You were the first Asian president of the Commission for Aeronautical Meteorology of the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation. What role does Hong Kong play in this field?

Hong Kong is very much at the forefront in the field of providing aviation weather services. We were the first to launch a weather app for flight crews that was developed by a meteorological authority. Pilots used to have to go through a heavy stack of papers printed with all the weather information of the places along their route. Now with “MyFlightWx”, pilots can get real time weather information at the press of a button on their iPad instead of looking at black and white graphs on paper. Other countries also have similar products, but they are commercially produced.

I would say the reason why Hong Kong is leading in this area is because we have had a well established communication network between the observatory and the aviation community for the past 20 years compared to other countries.

Not everyone gets to live in a historical monument. Why did you choose not to live at the Observatory quarters?

I tried staying there for a year, it’s a great environment, but I had some problems adjusting to it. The birds would wake me up as early as 4.30am. They weren’t just singing, maybe they were quarrelling and sometimes they would knock into the windows so it was really noisy. I had some problems getting a good sleep, so I let my assistant director stay there as a resident. But whenever there’s a typhoon, he always has a room for me.

Watch: Hong Kong cleans up after Typhoon Hato

What do you usually do for fun?

I like photography. I still remember my father bought me my first camera when I was in Form Four or Five. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I started taking photos of clouds maybe 10 or 15 years ago, both as a hobby and as part of my passion for wind shear since I work on wind shear detection for the airport at Chek Lap Kok. I was always wondering whether I could capture the wind shear in photos and I’ve been able to capture some really interesting cloud formations.

What is the most memorable dish that you’ve had?

I like trying different food. Two years ago I went on a tour with my wife to Malaysia led by the very famous chef Martin Yan. The best I have tried was a very special kind of steamed fish called Empurau. It was really very memorable. It’s a very expensive fish with a very unique taste. This fish is only found in the Sarawak rainforest where it eats the nuts from the surrounding trees that drop into the river, so the flesh has a very special taste that no other fish has. I only tried it once, but it was very unique.

What is your favourite book and why?

One of my favourite books is called The Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. I’m not a Buddhist, but I really like to read his books. I started to like reading about philosophy and Buddhism after my eyes developed a problem when I was young. I had a retinal detachment and used to suffer from an eye haemorrhage. But I found peace reading his books. One of the key messages I learned is that it’s important to recognise the present moment.

Which destination is at the top of your travel bucket list and why?

The Arctic and Antarctica. Of course, tourism to the polar region may not be good for the environment, but as a scientist, I really want to see with my own eyes what’s happening, the serious melting of glaciers and ice caps.