The-Hong-Kong Observatory - Through Science We Serve

by CM Shun, Director, Hong Kong Observatory 1

The four branches and 318 staff of the Hong Kong Observatory (hereafter referred to as the Observatory) celebrated its 130th anniversary on 23 March, World Meteorological Day. When the Observatory first saw light in 1883, its mission was to serve the marine transport sector that was crucial to commerce and the economic development of Hong Kong1(China2), which was well on its way to becoming a major shipping hub. The Observatory, well aware of the importance of science and professionalism in providing meteorological services3, has always sought to innovate to achieve its goal. This is still the case today: through scientific innovation and partnerships, facilitated by the World Weather Watch (WWW), the Observatory endeavours to serve an ever-expanding community of users of weather services.

Over the last few decades, the Observatory has ventured into new disciplines such as nuclear radiation monitoring, emergency response and the further development of aviation weather services for the new Hong Kong International Airport. To mark its 130th anniversary, the Observatory engaged its staff in updating the Observatory’s vision, mission and value statements that will guide its future activities over the next decade and beyond:

Vision - Be a model of excellence in protecting lives and building together a better society through science.

Mission - To provide people-oriented quality services in meteorology and related fields, and to enhance society’s capability in natural disaster prevention and response, through science, innovation and partnership.

Values - Through SCIENCE, we Serve, we Care, we Innovate, we Enthuse, we Nurture, we Collaborate and we Excel.


In the early days of the WWW, after the February 1966 launch of ESSA-I and ESSA-II the world’s first operational weather satellite system, the Observatory improvised within a very short period of time an operational system to receive satellite images from ESSA-II (and NIMBUS-II). The system made use of some very basic equipment, however, the quality of the satellite pictures compared well with the best images received by multi-milliondollar equipment. One of the pioneers in implementing that satellite picture reception system, Professor Peter MK Yau, now a specialist in cloud physics and tropical cyclones at McGill University (Canada), visited the Observatory in August 2013 and recalled the innovative spirit that existed there in 1966 when he was a 20-year old scientific assistant.4

Peter MK Yau
In 1966, Peter MK Yau used basic equipment, valued around US$200, to capture satellite images for the Observatory. At right is an image of Typhoon Judy captured in May 1966.

Typhoon Vicente 2012
Typhoon related casualties have declined significantly in recent decades. Severe Typhoon Vicente in 2012 (its well-defined eye is visible on the weather radar image at top) led to the issuance of a level 10 warning – the highest on the Observatory scale – however, there were no casualties.

The innovative spirit of the Observatory staff has continued throughout the history of WWW. Societal needs arising from disaster risk reduction has been the main driver. Innovation was necessary to build a more weather resilient city, to construct the new Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) and to respond to climate change. It contributed, for example, to the development of the first low-level wind shear detection system for the Hong Kong Kai Tak airport in the late 1970s, to the deployment of a Doppler acoustic radar for low-level wind shear detection and for air ventilation studies in support of town planning in the early 1980s, to the assembling of the first automatic weather stations also in the early 1980s, to the development of a rainfall nowcasting system (known as SWIRLS – “Short range Warning of Intense Rainstorms in Localized Systems”) in the 1990s, and to the developing the world-first LIDAR wind shear alerting system covering clear-air conditions.5

SWIRLS has proven beneficial in providing operational warnings of landslides brought by heavy rain. It received international recognition in forecast demonstration projects during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World EXPO. SWIRLS was further extended by integrating data from a newly installed regional lightning detection network championed by the Observatory in the mid-2000s, spawning a number of new nowcasting convection services in support of airport operations and air traffic management. These were timely developments, as increasing air traffic and the extension of its terminal area has made HKIA more vulnerable to significant weather. Hong Kong’s largest electric company has also recently started to use the nowcasting applications in their operations. The world’s first location-specific rainfall nowcast service, the mobile phone application MyObservatory, is also based on SWIRLS outputs.

Faced with ever-changing user needs and quickly evolving and emerging technologies and media for communication, the capability to innovate is an important key to success for meteorological services, especially the Observatory. Over the past fifty years, the Observatory has gone a long way from utilizing “a pile of junk which gives million dollar tracking results” to deploying the latest technology to deliver weather information to virtually every person on the move, thanks to its innovative spirit and the service mindset that permeates the Observatory and its people.


Considering the tremendous success of the WWW in fostering international cooperation in weather, climate and water in the past fifty years, the importance of partnership to national meteorological services (NMSs) cannot be overstated. This is particularly so for a modest-size NMS such as the Observatory. In its quest to innovate and serve, Observatory has sought out cooperation with national hydrological and meteorological services, universities and research institutions, both locally and overseas. Observatory staff cooperate closely with their counterparts in mainland China on projects of mutual interest in order to pull together expertise and resources – for example, for high-performance computing platforms and data sharing.

Government Flying Service and Observatory colleagues
Government Flying Service and Observatory colleagues checking the meteorological data probe on the Jetstream-41 fixed-wing aircraft.


The mobile app MyObservatory ( was developed in early 2010. It provided weather observations and photographs for the area closest to the location of the user as determined by the mobile platform. Within a few months, MyObservatory was upgraded to provide a suite of weather information, including displays of weather forecasts and warnings, radar and satellite imageries, lightning data, tidal information, tropical cyclone tracking, information on ultraviolet exposure, Observatory videos on YouTube, and much more. This was in response to the growing user expectation generated by "MyObservatory".

This new version quickly became a great success, and the number of downloads and page views skyrocketed. The number of downloads of MyObservatory on iOS and Android platforms have now exceeded 3.8 million. Recently the page views of MyObservatory exceeded the page views of the Observatory website. The daily figure now exceeds 100 million page views – that is an average of more than 14 page views per day per person, considering Hong Kong’s population of 7.2 million. The peak daily figure reached 205 million on 22 September 2013 during the approach of Severe Typhoon Usagi.

The success of MyObservatory in Hong Kong led the Observatory to develop the world’s first official weather forecast mobile app, MyWorldWeather, as an extension of the World Weather Information Service (WWIS) of WMO. MyWorldWeather is now available in nine languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Korean, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.

MyObservatory mobile app
MyObservatory mobile app is available on iOS and Android platforms.


In the early years of the Observatory, local cooperation and partnership were instrumental in collecting meteorological observations, especially from the sea and upper air. Reception of weather reports from ships by wireless telegraphy started in 1908 and was well established in the 1920 and 30s with around 10,000 reports received per year. Partnership with the aviation community commenced in the same period with the first-ever survey of upper-air temperatures, conducted in 1924 in cooperation with the British military. A training school for pilots commenced regular upper-air observations in 1938; thus, the provision of aircraft observations had become a daily routine by 1939. Both the aviation and marine communities benefited in return from the Observatory’s weather services.

The partnership with the aviation community reached a milestone in 2011 when the Observatory collaborated with the Government Flying Service to start conducting reconnaissance flights into tropical cyclones over the northern part of the South China Sea on a Jetstream-41 fixed-wing aircraft. Two years earlier, the Observatory had equipped the Jestream-41 with a meteorological data probe with the intention of making regular data collection flights in support of wind shear and turbulence studies for HKIA. Assimilation into the operational Numerical Weather Prediction model at the Observatory of the weather data collected near tropical cyclones reduced tropical cyclone track forecast errors and improved precipitation forecasts. The wind data collected at low altitudes were also found useful in the operational assessment of the wind structure of tropical cyclones. Such reconnaissance flights have now become more or less routine operations whenever a tropical cyclone is expected to affect Hong Kong. The data collected is shared with WMO Members. In the coming year, a Challenger 605 jet that will also launch dropsondes will replace the Jetstream-41, making real-time data collection and downlink near tropical cyclones over the South China Sea a reality.

The Observatory started its international cooperation efforts in the 1930s when the Observatory hosted the first Conference of Directors of Far Eastern Weather Services. The aim of the Conference was a regional agreement in standardizing tropical cyclone warning signals (then known as non-local storm signal code). Following World War II, Observatory staff played active roles in many WMO activities, including capacity building, typhoon and monsoon research, marine climatological summaries, public weather services, aviation weather services, and so on. These efforts culminated, in the last decade, in establishing the Severe Weather Information Centre (SWIC)6 and the World Weather Information Service (WWIS)7, which make official warnings and forecasts from WMO Members more accessible to the public and the media around the world. These could not have been achieved by the Observatory without the cooperation of, and partnerships with, Members.

The Observatory could present a plethora of examples of partnerships, but the point is clear: the quality of weather services to the general public would not be at their current levels had national hydrological and meteorological services had to develop them on their own. The partnerships formed through WMO are essential for pulling together expertise and resources that may not be immediately available in a specific weather service eager to pursue new initiatives in weather, climate and water. The results of such partnerships benefit the entire NMSs community and, ultimately, society at large. With the establishment of the Global Framework on Climate Services (GFCS), the Observatory has started to establish local projects in collaboration with partners, such as the Geotechnical Engineering Office, Water Supplies Department and electric and gas companies, to develop climate information services for applications in disaster risk reduction, the management of water resources and the energy sector. These will contribute to making society better prepared to respond to climate change. The Observatory also stands ready to share the experience it has gained from these collaborations with the international community in order to mainstream these new climate services into the portfolio of national hydrological and meteorological services.

Science, innovation and partnership are in the Observatory’s genes. Looking ahead, the Observatory will endeavour to sustain its active contribution to the WMO family, foster further collaboration with partners at all levels, pursue development opportunities and meet the challenges ahead. In a world faced with opportunities and challenges of climate change, the Observatory will continue to serve society by providing science-based information.


Community weather information network (Co-WIN)

Co-WIN is a collaborative effort of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Observatory, aimed at promoting weather and climate education based on a learning-by-doing approach. Members of Co-WIN can install a basic off-the-shelf automatic weather station, fitted with software and an Internet connection, to contribute weather reports to the website A mobile application permits members to share weather photographs on the Internet at and on FaceBook at

The number of Co-WIN members has risen from 35 to 133 since it was established in August 2007. They span a wide spectrum from primary and secondary schools to geriatric centres, the Scout Association and WWF of Hong Kong. Two new members from the ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee - in Guam, USA, and in the Philippines –have made the membership international. Co-WIN received the 2010 Vaisala Award for Weather Observing and Instrumentation of the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS).

Community Weather Observing Scheme
Co-WIN’s Community Weather Observing Scheme FaceBook page for sharing of weather photographs by members.


China to fill Satellite Gap with FY-3 Series

The Chinese Government adopted a 10-year plan for the launch of 11 operational satellites to develop the Feng-Yun (FY) meteorological satellite programme. Feng-Yun means “Wind and Cloud”. FY-3C, launched on 23 September, is the third flight unit in the FY-3 series of seven operational meteorological satellites in sunsynchronous orbit. The design life time of the satellites is three years. The replacement policy is based on launching satellites at regular intervals, one every two years. The FY-3 polarorbiting series provides services to users worldwide.

China Meteorological Administration (CMA) has been seeking to jointly operate an improved WIGOS by working with other satellite operators. To this end, in coordination with the WMO Space Programme and with the assistance of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CMA is carrying out a feasibility study on, and analysis of, the development of a series of FY-3 early-morning orbit satellites to fill the gaps in polar-orbiting meteorological satellite observation. This will be an important contribution to improving global numerical weather prediction.

Satellite observation

Satellites have a unique vantage point for global monitoring of weather and climate phenomena. Above is a mosaic image acquired by a Medium Resolution Spectral Imager flying on a CMA FY-3A satellite.

1 Mr. Shun is also Permanent Representative of Hong Kong, China, with WMO, President of the WMO Commission for Aeronautical Meteorology and Chair of the ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee.
2 Part of the British Empire as of 1842, sovereignty was resumed by China in 1997, at which time it officially became: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
3 “”... called for the setting up of a time-ball based on a scientific determination of the time... and the necessity for a more professional storm warning capability... calls were made as early as 1877, and again in 1879, for the establishment in Hong Kong of an observatory to take charge of these tasks” - Early China Coast Meteorology: The Role of Hong Kong, by P. Kevin MacKeown”
5 Shun, C. M., and P. W. Chan, 2008: Applications of an Infrared Doppler Lidar in Detection of Wind Shear. J. Atmos. Oceanic Technol., 25, 637–655.

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