On the wind

Photo by Derrick Chang

The Hong Kong government has become so desperate in its attempts to deflect blame for the appalling air quality prevailing in the territory that its meteorological department has taken to making disingenuous statements about the recent history of the weather.

Over three days, October 5-7, Hong Kong was enveloped in a thick blanket of smog that drove the Air Pollution Index to well over 100 in some areas, a level which at which people with heart and other health problems are advised not to go out or take exercise. The index hit that unsavory mark in the key tourist area of Causeway Bay and congested Mongkok. It was barely possible to see across Hong Kong harbor, itself a major tourist attraction. While the level of pollution may have been barely noticed by the half million mainland tourists visiting over the Golden Week holiday — it is the norm in many Chinese cities — it is an increasing health hazard for Hong Kong residents with higher expectations, not least the foreign business community for whom pollution is now a major deterrent to residency here.

But rather than see the situation as a wake-up call, the government, both in its own press releases and through bulletins on the weather website of the Hong Kong Observatory, blamed the sorry state of affairs on “light winds.” This was clearly contradicted by other information on the website, particularly that for marine and aviation traffic. It was particularly disappointing from a government department which provides large amounts of useful weather information.

At no time during the three days was there ever a marine or airport forecast of anything less than Force 3, and for much of the time Force 4 was both forecast and recorded at weather stations in Hong Kong waters and at the airport. Forces 3 to 4 are winds in the range of 7 to 16 knots, known in the common meteorological parlance used in official forecasts and bulletins as “moderate.” An Observatory spokesperson was quoted saying that because of “light winds… suspended particles lingered in the air.” (The official definition of “light wind” is 1-6 knots). Yet its own website was recording much higher wind levels.

As many people taking part in sailing races in Hong Kong harbor on the afternoon of October 5 could testify, including this correspondent, there was a steady west wind which was never less than 8 knots, averaged around 11 knots and sometimes gusted to at least 16. Yet the government was blaming the harbor smog on “light” winds.

Just one look at the weather map could also have shown that “light” winds were anyway improbable given that Hong Kong was under the influence of Typhoon Krosa, which battered northern Taiwan and then the coast of Zhejiang over the weekend.

The actual wind speed for October 5-7 was about average for the time of year. The only unusual aspect was that because of Krosa the wind was westerly rather than the northeasterly which normally prevails from around late-September to March. A westerly might be blamed for bringing more pollution from the Pearl River Delta than a northeasterly does. But that is another story.

The government may claim that winds in many parts of Hong Kong were “light”. But many areas almost always have light winds. One reason is the territory’s topography of hillsides rising 1,000 feet and more, with peaks over 3,000 feet. However, as important is the multiplicity of close-packed 40-storey curtain-wall buildings so beloved by the government’s closest allies, the big property developers. Any definition of “weather” by the Observatory must relate to its natural state rather than how it is altered by Hong Kong’s buildings.

In other words, the forecasts and reports given to marine and aviation users were accurate, but the subsequent “light wind” descriptions provided to the public were contrived to fool the people and shift blame away from a government so beholden to vested interests that it cannot take the tough action needed to raise air quality standards. In the world of Chief Executive Donald Tsang and the bureaucracy he oversees developers, power companies and transport operators trump public health concerns. Draw your own conclusions about what this says about Hong Kong’s future as a “world city”.

Many in the financial services industries who have a choice of location are voting with their feet, preferring to trade freedom of speech for the cleaner air of Singapore. Foreign chambers of commerce warnings about the situation go unheeded by a government which likes to compare Hong Kong to other Chinese cities rather than the international ones with which it is supposed to be competing for World City status.