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Monday, 2nd March 2009

Overnight at Tai Mo Shan

The blog has not been updated for so long that people wrote to enquire about my health. I am grateful to all who care about me and have the pleasure to report that I am quite alright. The trouble is that because I am going to leave my post soon, I have the urge to do more about whatever comes my way. It makes me doubly busy. Writing blog articles is in the final analysis a peripheral task which occasionally has to be put aside.

One particularly interesting thing happened to me recently. I spent a night at the Observatory's weather radar station on top of Tai Mo Shan.

Whenever a tropical cyclone approaches Hong Kong, the Observatory's Radar Specialist Mechanics (RSM) would go and stay at the Tai Mo Shan Weather Radar Station, to help ensure the uninterrupted service of the radar in the monitoring of tropical cyclones. They are there round the clock, getting the radar to work at its optimal state and being always ready to repair it in case of any malfunction. They have to be there as the no. 3 signal goes up. They won't leave until the no. 3 signal comes down. They don't care whether the stay lasts one day, two days or three.

They endure howling winds and drenching rain as typhoons hit. Holed in at the top of Hong Kong, it would be hard to rescue them in case of accidents because the mountain roads are narrow and dangerous. I don't know whether they feel any fear as they set off for the peak on the issuance of the no. 3 signal. Furthermore, Observatory staff are supposed to protect people against natural hazards. But they have to leave their families to their own means in facing high winds and heavy rain, which is quite an irony. I wonder if they think of their own families when they are surrounded by wind and rain themselves up there.

It was with these thoughts that I boarded the Observatory car one Friday evening two weeks ago, heading for the peak with my RSM colleagues. I was hoping to feel for myself the process they go through. Within minutes, the hustles of the city was replaced by the calm of the wilderness. We were lucky, there was no hill fog. But that made the sharp turns of the mountain road much more visible. As we approached the radar station, the hair-pin turns were particularly frightening. We were fortunate to be in the hands of a very experienced driver. He told me that it was a piece of cake this time. He had seen much worse weather conditions and was always in control. Well, I believe him. Once upon a time, the power supply to the radar station broke down and the radar was paralysed. On the order "go", the Observatory driver on duty shot off without a blink and took the RSMs back. On their return, they reported that it was quite an adventure. The car trembled so much that it had to be stopped from time to time to wait for lulls in the wind. My salutes to my colleagues who work with so much passion and dedication!

By the time we arrived at the station, it was already dusk. Glimmering lights at the foot of the hill were visible through the haze. Civilization was in sight but was also very distant. On closing the main door, we transitioned into another world. Here the hum of the radar fills the whole space. To prevent rain-water seepage, the main working rooms have no windows. The lights are on round the clock and there is no way to tell whether it is day or night. A mystic sense of surrealism prevails. When I asked my colleagues whether they felt annoyed by the noise, they surprised me with their reply. "The hum of the radar is music to our ears. If we don't hear it in the station, we would feel very uncomfortable and worry about what has gone wrong."

They told me that every time they were up there they felt the heavy burden of responsibility. As typhoon approaches, all Hong Kong citizens would be watching the Observatory while Observatory forecasters would be watching the radar. If the radar breaks down, the Observatory would effectively be blind and could not see where the typhoon eye is. It would not have been possible for me to resonate with their worries if I had not come to the scene of real action. On this special night on Tai Mo Shan, I knew well that my colleagues took their job seriously and they clearly understood their mission. I also shared with them the unavoidable psychological burden arising from our sense of responsibility. We talked till late night and eventually retired to the sleeping bags that we each brought with us.

The room having no window, sunrise was not noticed. I slept beyond eight o'clock which was somewhat embarrassing. Breakfast was instant noodle, which had been on stock at the station for some time. We then thoroughly inspected the station building. I was told that rain had fallen overnight. While it was not heavy, rain still managed to get into the station leaving patches on water here and there. Rain drops carried by strong winds in the hills would appear to be quite capable of finding cracks and slipping through them. Indeed we must do a good check and have all cracks filled before the rain season starts. A weather radar drowned by rain-water would be too satirical a joke.

On the radar tower, I had a walk on the verandah and took in a 360-degree view of Hong Kong. One could see here and there in the embrace of hills and valleys patches of prosperity which together sustain the livelihood of a population of some seven million. Civilization thrives in the company of nature. It is such a miracle.

Finally, it was time to go. Tai Mo Shan, when would our paths cross again ?

CY Lam

P.S. Apart from guarding the radar at Tai Mo Shan, Observatory colleagues carry out many tasks and go through many interesting situations rarely known to the public. We have recently collated more than forty articles written by Observatory staff in the book Weathering the Storms. It is worth a read. The book is available for sale via the internet
http://www.bookstore.gov.hk and from several major post offices. See the link http://www.weather.gov.hk/wxinfo/news/2009/pre0122e.htm for details.
Lately, the book is also on sale in a number of major bookshops. Please call them to check availability.



Discussing with colleagues on Tai Mo Shan till late night

Discussing with colleagues on Tai Mo Shan till late night


After a memorable night at the radar station

After a memorable night at the radar station



Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>