Hong Kong Typhoons

nesat wavesTyphoons have sometimes caused massive damage and loss of life in Hong Kong.

Just months after British sovereignty over Hong Kong Island was first declared in 1841, “a violent typhoon flattened all the insubstantial housing and damaged shipping.” (Endacott, A History of Hong Kong.) (For a little info on how typhoons form, and Hong Kong’s typhoon signals, see my article Hong Kong tropical cyclones.)

One of Hong Kong’s worst typhoons struck in 1874; according to an eyewitness, Eitel, in Europe in China ((1895): “the town looked as if it had undergone a terrific bombardment. Rows of houses were unroofed, hundres of European and Chinese dwellings were in ruins, large trees were torn out by their roots … in every direction dead bodies were seen floating about or scattered among the ruins … thirty-five foreign vessels, trusting in their anchors, were wrecked or badly injured.” (Welsh, A History of Hong Kong.)

Another typhoon, bringing a major storm surge, struck on September 1906, killing 10,000 or more people (a Wikipedia entry gives 15,000), many of them fishermen. For info on this and other major typhoons hitting HK, see Typhoons affecting Hong Kong: case studies (pdf file). 

Hong Kong’s deadliest typhoon – in 1937 

Another deadly Hong Kong typhoon slammed the then-colony on 2 September 1937, with the roaring winds pushing a great tidal surge that funnelled up Tolo Harbour, and swamped villages. With the surge arriving in darkness, many people were hit whilst they were sleeping. Perhaps 11,000 people died.
“At the time, Hong Kong harbor was the seventh busiest port in the world. During the height of the typhoon the sea level in the harbor rose about 1.8 m (6 ft) above the predicted level of high tide.” http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/1930s/HongKong/

For photos taken in the aftermath of this 1937 typhoon, mainly of ships blasted aground (with an initial shot with some of the ships on a tranquil day before the storm), see The Great Hong Kong Typhoon – 1937; also try video posted to Facebook. [Wikipedia entry has far less info] The Great Hong Kong Typhoon article mentions the tidal surge, which also impacted Victoria Harbour, with the water reaching Des Voeux Road – and says the wind was so strong that small fish were blown, “many yards from the sea on to buildings 90ft above the ground.”

Typhoon Wanda: most powerful Hong Kong typhoon recorded 

Hong Kong’s most powerful typhoon on record, Wanda, also pushed a tidal wave through Tolo Harbour, but this time residents were forewarned, and though properties were wrecked there was far less loss of life, with 127 fatalities in all. Its arrival on the morning of 1 September 1962 coincided with the forecast 7-foot high tide, and in Tolo Harbour the water level was around ten feet higher than this forecast height, with wind-driven waves pushing the water level another six feet higher (to around 23 feet above “chart datum”) near Sha Tin. The high water mark reached landmarks including Sha Tin railway station – where the water was over the track but below the platform.

About a fifth of the residential huts at Sha Tin were destroyed during Typhoon Wanda, mainly by logs or boats crashing into them. Part of the seawall at Sha Tin collapsed. Fields were inundated with salt water. Damage was widespread, with 72,000 people made homeless; of 132 ocean-going ships, 24 were beached and 12 involved in collisions; many trees were uprooted or snapped off, and even among those that survived, many were stripped of leaves. (I’ve drawn this info from Typhoon Wanda on the Observatory site.)

The maximum 10-minute mean wind speed recorded at the Observatory during Typhoon Wanda was 78 kots (144km [90 miles] per hour), and the maximum gust 140 knots (259km [161 miles] per hour); a maximum gust of 284km (176 miles) per hour was recorded at Tate’s Cairn, on the hills above Kowloon.

Wanda arrived during a relatively busy spell for typhoons hitting Hong Kong – the Number 10, hurricane-force wind signal was raised five times during the early 1960s, but only on six occasions since, with only one direct hit by a typhoon in each of the 1980s and 1990s.

Hong Kong’s most recent direct hit by typhoons: York and Nuri

Cheung Chau during Typhoon YorkThough I’ve been here since 1987, I’ve only experienced two direct hits by typhoons – York, in mid-September 1999; and Nuri, in August 2008 (albeit Nuri had weakened to around severe tropical storm as it hit, though winds exceeded hurricane force at Waglan Island).

York tracked relatively slowly across southern Hong Kong, forcing the Number 10 signal to stay up for a record 10 hours. The maximum gust was 234km per hour, at Waglan Island – the strongest gust Waglan has yet recorded. (Waglan also recorded the maximum hourly wind, 151km per hour.)

Though there was one fatality – a windsurfer who went out during the eye, Typhoon York caused relatively little damage: windows were blown out of buildings in Wanchai, fields were flooded, the container port operations severely disrupted.

During Typhoon York, I mainly stayed at my home on Cheung Chau, which offers a fine – though exposed – vantage over the sea to the west. As York approached, I was sheltered from the winds, which roared over the hills and trees behind my place. When the winds were strongest, the air was strewn with leaves ripped from the trees. (The island’s weather station recorded gusts of up to 182km per hour.) It rained, too, with downpours so severe visibility was cut to maybe a hundred metres; the clouds were so thick it was gloomy, street lights were on even mid-morning.

There were non-stop radio reports, mentioning that the eye was passing over southern Hong Kong and, sure enough, the winds moderated, eased, the rain stopped, and the sky brightened. It had been extremely dark under thick storm clouds, but now (late morning) it was like early morning – some birds called and sang. The air was filled with dragonflies – there must have been many thousands of them, surely swept into the storm and carried with it.

During the eye, with the rain over, I had chance to scan for seabirds, but there were only a few Bridled Terns. I went for a short walk; reaching the other side of the hill, facing east, it looked like a dark grey to black wall was in front of Hong Kong Island. This was surely the eye wall, and it looked pretty close, so I headed back home.

Soon, the wind was building again. From breeze, to wind, to strong wind, then hurricane again – I reckoned it took maybe half an hour or so for the full strength winds to return. But the winds had swung, and in anticipation of this I now had typhoon shutters up over the main window (and a kitchen window away from the wind partly open – I’ve heard this can help stop air pressure fluctuating in buildings [air condistioners can get tossed into rooms, windows may be blown out, simply by changing pressure]).

I then lived in an apartment that faced Lantau, which was little more than a stone’s throw away. So, it was odd to hear someone phone in to the radio saying he was on Lantau, and the air was calm; I called in to say the wind would soon strengthen, as the eye wall returned.

I took some photos and video footage, including within the eye, during Typhoon Nuri.

Typhoon Vicente, August 2012

In August 2012, a near miss by Typhoon Vicente led to Number 10 signal being issued for the first time since Typhoon York: Typhoon Vicente reaches hurricane force over Cheung Chau Hong Kong

Further Info

There are several good typhoon websites. The Hong Kong Observatory is an important site when a storm may impact Hong Kong (try real time satellite images and, if a storm is close, check out the radar images); Weather Underground of Hong Kong is good – forums can have much discussion of tropical storm as they form and approach; and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center has abundant info, including forecast strengths and tracks that may differ somewhat from the Observatory’s forecasts. CIMSS Tropical Cyclones is also worth checking; also includes tropical storms elsewhere, including Atlantic hurricanes; maps of forecast tracks are coloured to indicate actual/forecast storm strengths. Tropical Cyclone Intensity and Track Forecasts, from MIT, has charts and maps with data from several models.

Also, see a 2007 paper (pdf) – Recent decline in typhoon activity in the South China Sea. This reveals a significant decline in numbers of typhoons entering the South China Sea; during 1996-2005, typhoons forming over west Pacific showed more tendency to head for Japan and east China than during 1961-1995. Cause may be associated with change in ways tropical storms are steered, in turn perhaps linked to higher temperatures in the South China Sea. [Might wonder, then: will these higher temperatures lead to more typhoon formation within the S China Sea?]

The Hong Kong Observatory blog includes an article noting that Hong Kong has not been hit by a super typhoon since 1979: Super Typhoon – the Reincarnation of Wanda. Update: Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit in September 2018.


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  1. Typhoon Update
    Actualy the most recent Direct Hit by a typhoon happend 4/5 weeks ago It was not as seviere as Typhoon york.

    But still reached Typhoon Signal 9 That one was called Nuri,

    And yes it dose hep to open the windows a bit during a typhoon.

    Although Iam not sure what would happen to tall buildings above 30-40 floors in hight if a repeate of the 1960’s strorm/Typhoon Hit Hong Kong

    As I was not even born when that one hit HK,

    Anyway enough about my youth,

    I am intrested because I happen to live on the 37th Floor of a Blook of flats in Po lam


  2. Nuri a direct hit

    Aha, anonomous, thanks for pointing this out – I should do an update to the article

    Nuri’s eye indeed passed right over HK, tho by then it was more a severe tropical storm. Still, powerful winds, and weird in the eye: I took some photos and video footage: Typhoon Nuri.

  3. Tropical Cyclones Myths – Windows Open

    Subject: C6) During a hurricane are you supposed to have the windows and doors on the storm side closed and the windows and doors on the lee side open? Contributed by Chris Landsea

    No! All of the doors and windows should be closed (and shuttered) throughout the duration of the hurricane. The pressure differences between inside your house and outside in the storm do not build up enough to cause any damaging explosions. (No house is built airtight.) The winds in a hurricane are highly turbulent and an open window or door – even if in the lee side of the house – can be an open target to flying debris. All exterior windows should be boarded up with either wooden or metal shutters.