Hong Kong’s Destructive Floods Are Just the Tip of the Climate Crisis

Typhoon Saola’s Effect on Hong Kong

Last week, Hong Kong was tormented by the heaviest rain since records began almost 140 years ago, leaving two dead and 115 injured. The waist-level floodwaters wreaked havoc throughout the city, submerging tunnels, train stations, and shopping malls. 

On September 7, 2023, the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) logged a record-breaking rainfall of 158.1 millimetres (6.2 inches) per hour, the highest since 1884. The disastrous rain came a week after the emergence of Super Typhoon Saola on September 1, 2023. 

The typhoon was described as a “well-defined” and “tightly-wound circulation” by HKO, prompting authorities to issue the highest storm warning, Hurricane Signal No.10, for a record-breaking 16 hours straight. This is also the first such a warning since Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018, which injured 450 people and caused a total economic loss of HK$4.6 billion.

The aggressive winds and downpours caused flash floods across the city, turning roads into rivers and staircases into waterfalls. Viral videos show severe flooding in Wong Tai Sin station that eventually caused the suspension of the Kwun Tong line services. In another video circulating online, a shopping mall in Wong Tai Sin is also shown to be submerged in floodwaters.

(Video credit: HK4K)

On the other hand, there was a total of seven landslides, one in New Territories and six in Hong Kong Island. The debris from two of the landslides caused the closure of Shek O Road between Shek O and Big Wave Bay. 

“The reason for the flooding was that the rainfall exceeded the capacity of the drains,” Drainage Services acting director Chui Si-kay told Hong Kong Free Press. He further explained that the debris traveled to the drains and blocked them. The blockage perpetuated the accelerated pace of the flooding.

“I am wondering if the weather is becoming a more extreme and weird cause of global warming,” said 20-year-old university student Lisa Rai.

During the week of the typhoon, Rai went to Wan Chai for a brief staycation at Dorset Hotel. Unfortunately, she was tormented by the raging storms, which left severe damage on the roads surrounding her hotel. She struggled to find a way home due to all the debris on the streets.

“People had to wait for the bus in the place right next to this,” Rai said as she showed her picture.

The debris left from the heavy rain in Wan Chai on September 11, 2023. Photo credit: Lisa Rai.

Chief Executive John Lee was “very concerned” about the flooding and called for “all-out efforts”. After the mobilisation of recovery efforts, the situation was alleviated after a few days, as school and work resumed on September 11, 2023. 

At first glance, this extreme weather event indeed seems to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. However, a brief overlook of Hong Kong’s evolving climate proves that what we are currently witnessing is simply the tip of the climate crisis iceberg.

The Typhoon Was No Coincidence

As the gray clouds clear out, Hong Kong skies have recently made way for an abundance of sunlight and persistent heat, reminiscent of the city’s sizzling conditions just this summer.

Earlier this month, HKO announced that Hong Kong experienced its hottest summer of all time in August 2023, with a mean temperature of 29.7 C (85F). Furthermore, the heat recorded in the months of June, July, and August 2023 mount to a record-breaking high average temperature of 29.7C (85F) altogether.

The unusual baking heat experienced this summer is a testament to Hong Kong’s experience of global warming. The negative impacts brought by the extreme heat have spread to other aspects of the city’s environment, one of them being the surge in tropical cyclones.

In a 2018 research conducted by HKO, the city’s sea level is projected to rise between 0.63-1.07 metres by the end of this century. The rising sea levels are caused by the thermal expansion of seawater and the accumulation of melted snow, both of which are the effects of climate change.

While Hong Kong is no stranger to typhoons, the increasing severity has grown alarmingly unfamiliar. These typhoons are said to be stronger and more frequent. 

A 2016 study found that typhoons in East Asia and Southeast Asia have intensified by 12 to 15% since the late 1970s. In the Sixth Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in March 2023, super typhoons in East Asia are found to have nearly quadrupled from once per year to four times per year since the late 1970s.

While the series of torrential rains has finally stopped, the rainy seasons in the coming years shall remain intense, and even more intense.

“This would have been virtually impossible had it not been for climate change,” former director of HKO Lam Chiu-ying told South China Morning Post. “We have to be prepared for what used to be extreme but what could become normal.”

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