It never rains but pours in bad calls

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Jun 2018

It was embarrassing for the Hong Kong Observatory to admit it had texted a wrong message to say tropical cyclone signal No 1 had been hoisted when it didn't mean to until hours later.

Luckily, it was only No 1 that sent nobody scrambling for cover - unlike how the Hawaiians reacted in response to a false missile attack alert earlier this year, during which people ran around in panic looking for anything that might shield them from the armageddon of a North Korea nuclear attack.

In both incidents, typographical errors were blamed.

While the local false No 1 bulletin failed to affect life in any noticeable way, the error was enough to cause many a red face at the observatory, which is ranked among the most authoritative meteorological stations in the region.

As its management said immediately afterwards, it's necessary to improve the standard of quality checks to prevent similar incidents from recurring. It's a hiccup I'm confident the observatory can readily overcome.

However, there's a challenge of a different kind the meteorologists may find harder to deal with - an increase in weather forecasts by amateurs that have mushroomed in the internet world. Their popularity among undiscerning users is clouding the authority of the official observatory.

To make matters worse, although their predictions aren't as real as science demands, they're often more warmly received by a public with an appetite for sensational information. So, when some amateur websites predicted snow to fall in Hong Kong some time ago, media played it up to gain hit rates, even though similar forecasts were never found in our official observatory.

Weather forecasting is a science of chance, but an extremely small probability of snow was deliberately magnified to suit the tastes of a growing audience.

Tropical storm Ewiniar that landed observatory director Shun Chi-ming and his team of scientists in their current state of embarrassment had formed far away from the SAR. But people have been paying as much attention to it as they would give their pets.

It was plausibly due to a common desire among workers and students that Ewiniar may one day provide them with an extra day off, or at least early leave from work or school. That common desire - together with information readily available on the internet - is driving the public to pay unprecedented levels of attention to storms, long before they become life-threatening typhoons.

If the observatory lags behind in its forecasts, people start asking questions, putting pressure on the meteorologists to explain their "incompetence." The problem is that whatever they say isn't necessarily what many people want to hear.

Weather forecasting must be scientific. But the decision to issue weather warnings may not be, for there are always the social and economic impacts to consider. In some places, it's decided by politicians. Here in Hong Kong, it's fortunate the decision rests with the observatory.

The forecasters aren't only obliged to issue accurate bulletins, but also make sure decisions are based on science - and science only.

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