Analyses | Environment and energy | 2016-01-29

Cold War: Is Hong Kong prepared to do battle with cold weather?

Since 1975 it has never snowed in Hong Kong.[1] Indeed, there are only four recorded instances of snowfall in Hong Kong history. This should come as no surprise, since the lowest temperature recorded was in 1893, when the thermometers hit zero. As such, after a polar vortex swept through East Asia last week and brought temperatures in parts of Hong Kong down to 3.1 degrees Celsius, Hong Kong residents have been rattled by the sudden chill, despite the continued lack of snowfall. [2]

Classes were suspended for 510,000 primary and kindergarten students on January 25, one day after the coldest day in Hong Kong since 1957. However, school buildings remained open in case students wished to come to school. Meanwhile, 111 people were injured from the cold, many suffering from hypothermia, dizziness and body aches. Forty-five people were hospitalised. Responding to these conditions, the Government opened 17 temporary cold shelters to protect vulnerable people. [3]

In the eyes of many foreign residents of Hong Kong, the school suspensions may have seemed overly cautious. While discussing the school closures, Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Joseph Sung remarked on Facebook that when he was studying in Canada, he went to school even when the temperatures hit -37 degrees Celsius. [4] Moreover, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States just went through one of the worst blizzards in history. [5] New York City saw its second-highest snowfall since records began in 1869, while a total of 85 million people across multiple states were affected by the storm. Over three feet (91 cm) of snow fell in five states. Finally, in other parts of southern China, the polar vortex had much more serious effects. Temperatures in Zhejiang province reached minus 11 degrees, while highways in several provinces were closed due to snowstorms. [6]

Different Climates, Different Responses

It can be argued therefore that the class suspensions and the opening of cold shelters in comparatively warm Hong Kong was an overreaction. However, the fact of the matter is that residents from different climates have a variety of responses when it comes to temperature variations. According to Lee Lap-shun, Senior Scientific Officer of the Hong Kong Observatory, when temperatures reach either of the two extreme ends of local climatological range, mortality and hospitalisation rates will increase significantly and the number of elderly people calling for emergency support drastically increase. [7]

For example, in neighbouring Taiwan, temperatures fell to 4 degrees Celsius over the past few days, which was a 16-year record low. [8] Average temperatures for Taipei in January normally hover around 16 degrees. As a result, 57 people in the greater Taipei area died from the cold front, in many cases due to strokes, cardiac disease and hypothermia. A Taipei city spokesman argued that the “sudden drop” rather than the “actual temperature” was responsible for interfering with circulatory systems, particularly for the elderly. Most households in Taiwan lack central heating, which also contributed to the deaths. This is because most of the victims were found indoors, rather than outside, implying that their households were not insulated well enough from the cold.

Like Taiwan, most homes in Hong Kong lack central heating, and the Professional Teachers Union of Hong Kong has stated that the majority of schools do not have heaters installed to cope with severe cold weather. Nor does the Government salt and grit the roads to prevent frost from accumulating in cold temperatures. Since many schools in cold weather climates have central heating, along with other government-provided services such as salted roads and snow ploughs, it is not appropriate to compare the HKSAR or Taiwan with regions that are much more accustomed to chilly winters such as Canada when discussing the issue of school cancellations. [9]

Residents in Canada also are more likely to have adequate cold-weather clothing, since they regularly have to endure frigid winters. In Hong Kong, it makes less sense investing a significant amount of money on winter coats, gloves and scarves if these clothes will not be worn for most of the year. Of course, Hong Kong residents who regularly spend time abroad, or who can afford to go skiing in the winters, will also be more likely to have expensive winter jackets in their wardrobe.

Schools in colder regions typically have guidelines and contingency plans for dealing with cold weather so that parents and teachers know approximately when schools will close. Not only does the Education Bureau in Hong Kong lack such guidelines, but also, according to former Education Bureau head Joseph Wong Wing-ping, this year marked the first time that the Bureau has ever suspended classes due to low temperatures. [10] It can be argued then that the Bureau’s decision to suspend class was an extreme yet reasonable response that reflects the rarity of the weather conditions this year.

Existing cold-weather measures

Dr Alexis Lau Kai-hon, a Meteorologist with the University of Science and Technology, states that forecasting extreme weather is as difficult “as forecasting the stock market.” [11] Considering the fact that no meteorologists can outlaw the possibility of such cold conditions reoccurring in the future, it may be worth reviewing the adequacy of existing cold-weather measures in Hong Kong.

Firstly, despite some assertions that weather advisories are unnecessary, the Observatory should continue issuing the advisories to remind citizens of the potentially severe consequences of prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures whether hot or cold. As we have seen with the numerous injuries and hospitalisations this year due to cold climate exposure, there are still many Hong Kong residents who do not take the risks of hypothermia seriously enough. Thus, weather advisories are still necessary to inform residents of cold weather risks as well as the need to dress warmly and stay indoors.

While weather advisories have almost no negative impact on society, unscheduled school cancellations should never be taken lightly. Teachers will have to make up for the missed class time, which can have a negative impact on student preparation. And since weather-related closures are so rare in Hong Kong, many parents may not be aware of the cancellations. On January 25, several children were reportedly left at schools unsupervised after their parents dropped them off mistakenly thinking that class was still in session. [12] The Bureau did not announce the class suspensions until Sunday the 24th. Given such short notice, working parents may not be able to arrange for their children to be supervised at home in the event of a school suspension.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen argued that the Education Bureau made the right decision to suspend class, but they should have notified parents earlier. In the future, the Bureau may consider notifying parents several days in advance if they are contemplating a class suspension to account for impending cold weather. They can then confirm whether schools will be closed or not on the actual day. Of course, since weather reports cannot predict extreme weather with complete accuracy, the Bureau will not always be able to provide parents with ample warning. But in situations where the onset of cold temperatures is forecasted, as was the case this year, the Bureau can consider releasing a press release if they are indeed deliberating suspensions if temperatures fall below a certain threshold.

The Bureau should also consider ways to inform parents in addition to news reports. For instance, some principals messaged parents via WhatsApp to notify them about the suspensions. Finally, the Bureau should consider publishing a series of emergency measures that schools will take in response to cold weather, including school closures, so that teachers and parents will be aware of the steps that the Bureau will take in the event of another cold spell. The Bureau should also clarify whether there is any possibility that secondary school classes will be suspended during a cold snap.

The addition of central heating to schools and public buildings, or the retrofitting of school buildings to provide better insulation and heat retention, would protect students and the elderly from even the harshest of winters in Hong Kong. But this is unlikely to occur, given that central heating in public buildings is exceedingly rare in southern Chinese provinces. [13] In fact the Chinese Government only provides state-subsidised heating for residences and buildings in northern provinces such as Gansu and Henan. Cities such as Wuxi, Shanghai and Hangzhou have all suffered sub-zero temperatures and snow in recent years, but none of their schools and public buildings have state-subsidised heating. This is also the case for most Japanese cities, such as Tokyo, where six centimetres of snow fell last week. [14]

Of course the Chinese Government has no authority over central heating in Hong Kong. However, since cities such as Shanghai and Wuxi regularly experience worse winters than Hong Kong, it seems difficult to argue that local schools should have central heating especially when this heating would only be required for a few days a year. Such a move would also be unwise because heating systems would increase energy expenditures. [15] Thus, even though numerous meteorologists have noted that global warming has made extreme weather events more frequent, Hong Kong residents will probably have to live with less-than-balmy building interiors during the winter for the foreseeable future if they do not wish to buy portable heaters.

Protecting the elderly and the homeless during cold spells

A more concerning issue for Hong Kong beyond school cancellations is the plight of the elderly during cold spells. Senior citizens are especially susceptible to hypothermia and stroke in the event of a sharp temperature drop, as we have seen in Taiwan. In February 1996 more than 100 elderly people died during a prolonged cold snap in Hong Kong. [16] Since 1996 a number of measures were implemented to protect the elderly in such conditions. For instance, a 24-hour hotline was set up for the elderly and street sleepers to request emergency assistance in cold weather. [17]

Social workers from the Family Crisis Support Centre assess the needs of callers on the hotline and arrange for appropriate assistance. As previously mentioned, cold shelters have also been set up on a temporary basis. However, the shelters are typically not open in the daytime, with few exceptions. [18] Other measures include the provision of blankets and warming items through District Elderly Community Centres and Integrated Family Service Centres across Hong Kong in advance of and during cold spells. District community support service units and visiting health teams from the Department of Health also visit senior citizens during the winter to provide them with tips on staying warm.

Although this year has not seen as any fatalities due to cold just yet, the number of phone calls from the elderly to the 24-hour hotline exploded in recent days. This compelled the Government to open more cold shelters, increasing the number from 11 to 17. None other than Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying paid a visit to a cold shelter this week as he highlighted the importance of supporting the elderly and the homeless during extreme weather conditions. [19] According to EJ Insight, however, more could be done to accommodate the elderly in harsh winters. For instance, in Taipei, the Government partnered with the hotel industry to open some hotels to take care of the needy in cold temperatures. Given the high demand for cold shelters this year and the number of calls to the 24-hour hotline, this could help compensate for the potential undersupply of cold shelters. Also, the Government could consider making it customary practice to open all cold shelters in the daytime as well as in the evening, so that the homeless do not have to brave cold temperatures after being forced out of the shelters in the morning.

The Government may also deliberate providing firefighters and rescue operators with better equipment to deal with cold and frosty conditions. After over a hundred “frost-chasers” and sightseers became trapped on Tai Mo Shan, at least 300 firemen and eight helicopter flights were required to rescue the stranded residents. [20] The mountain was slippery in the frost and the firemen’s boots were not built for such weather; as a result, the firemen had difficulty climbing the mountain. In response, the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association called for more gear so that the firemen can better respond to cold weather emergencies on mountainous terrain. Fire Service Department Assistant Director Yau Wai-keung admitted that more special equipment was needed for mountain rescue. The Government could also consider stockpiling an emergency supply of salt and grit so that the roads can be made less slippery and frosty in the event of an abnormally cold winter.

When waging war against extreme weather, residents must be prepared with the right equipment. Given the absence of central heating from most buildings in Hong Kong, the only protection that most residents have against cold temperatures is warm clothing. Many Hongkongers, especially those who are not well-off, may not have invested in a winter coat. As such, the Government should ensure that vulnerable residents are taken care of during cold spells. Regarding school closures, the Bureau could draft guidelines that articulate the arrangements it will take in cold weather with regard to public primary school and kindergarten suspensions. The Bureau could also clarify whether or not it intends to recommend class suspensions in cold weather situations for students in private schools, international schools, secondary schools, and tertiary institutions. With appropriate equipment and safety guidelines, Hong Kong will ensure that it is prepared for the next cold spell.


1 Wong Tak-han, Last time it snowed in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Observatory, February 3, 2014,
2 Naomi Ng, Danny Mok and Ernest Kao, Polar vortex hits Hong Kong: record low temperatures close schools, hospitalise 45, injure 111, trap 130 on Kowloon Peak, South China Morning Post, January 24, 2016,
3 Jasmine Siu, Allen Au-yeung and Ng Kang-chung, Cold comfort: Hong Kong’s most vulnerable people forced to stay outside in bone-chilling weather, South China Morning Post, January 25, 2016,
4 Schools closure deserves frosty reception, The Standard, January 26, 2016,
5 U.S. blizzard; Millions battle snow travel chaos, BBC, January 26, 2016,
6 Wu Haojun, Snow hampers air, highway traffic in China, CNTV, January 24, 2016,
7 Lee Lap-shun, Hot and cold weather warnings can help vulnerable citizens, South China Morning Post, July 8, 2016,
8 Ralph Jennings, Dozens of deaths blamed on rare cold snap in Taiwan, Associated Press, January 25, 2016,
9 What central heating has done for us, BBC, October 1, 2009,
10 Kenneth Lau, Big freeze shuts schools, The Standard, January 25, 2016,
11 Ernest Kao, Coldest day in 59 years unexpected: Hong Kong meteorologists describe forecast challenges as imperfect science, South China Morning Post, January 25, 2016,
12 Allen Au-yeung and Lai Ying-kit, Nowhere else to go: Hong Kong working parents take children to school despite cold weather suspension, South China Morning Post, January 25, 2016,
13 Raymond Li, Southern China calls for central heating amid freeze, South China Morning Post, January 13, 2013,
14 Leeanna Mclean, Rare snowfall hits Tokyo, see what residents are creating, The Weather Network, January 21, 2016,
15 Mimi Lau, Snow and extreme cold set to hit southern China as ‘bossy cold wave’ moves towards Guangdong, South China Morning Post, January 20, 2016,
16 Ibid 7.
17 Council Meeting, Legislative Council of Hong Kong, January 17, 2007,
18 Ibid 3.
19 SC Yeung, How the cold weather has exposed Leung govt’s shortcomings, EJ Insight, January 25, 2016,
20 Christy Leung, Hong Kong frost chasers ridiculed: hospitalisations, arguments with police, 300 firemen and 8 helicopter flights to rescue them, South China Morning Post, January 25, 2016,