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Tuesday, 18th August 2009

History on weather map

The passing away of Mrs Corazon Aquino, ex-President of the Philippines, on 1 August reminds me of a night shift at the Observatory more than 20 years ago.

It was 24 February 1986, a day before the Philippine Revolution (the 'People Power Revolution'). I heard about the event's build-up on the news as tension in the Philippines continued to mount the previous few days.

Weather-wise, it was uneventful in Hong Kong that night, with a northeast monsoon bringing a cool 15 degrees Celsius.

As a weather forecaster, my duties covered the analysis of weather charts. One such chart came in every 3 hours, carrying surface observations made in this part of the world. These observations included those from nearly 20 stations in the Philippines.

Figure 1
Figure 1 - 8 p.m., 24 Feb 1986

The Filipino observations were quite normal at the start of the night shift, with practically all stations reporting (Figure 1). Then they started to decrease near midnight, and were down to a trickle in the small hours. By 8 a.m. (25 February), a major hour for meteorologists all over the world, the weather chart showed only the observation from Manila for the entire Philippines (Figure 2). I told myself things must be pretty serious there.

Figure 2
Figure 2 - 8 a.m., 25 Feb 1986. Only Manila (station no. 429) was
reporting. The rest were ship reports.

The situation did not improve that day, as I later found out --- only observations from Manila were available. The news came out that Mrs Corazon Aquino was inaugurated as the President that morning, while the former President, Mr Ferdinand Marcos, left the Philippines for the United States the same evening.

As evident on the weather chart, things quickly returned to normal the following day (26 February), with all stations reporting.

So, in a way, the weather chart does have a story to tell when it comes to a big event affecting practically everyone in a place.

Another example involves a weather map for December 1948, which is constantly on display at the Observatory (Figure 3). It was at the height of the Chinese Civil War, with the People's Liberation Army already controlling the northern and eastern parts of China. The map showed that while weather reports were non-existent in the north, observations were still being made at a number of stations in central and sourthern China (near the Yangtze River and to its south).

Figure 3
Figure 3 - 31 December 1948

The war ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People's Republic of China that year. Thereafter, the weather network was quickly re-built and further expanded. It attained world-class level by the late 1950s.

B.Y. Lee

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>