A common conversational gambit recommended for unfamiliar social situations is to refer to the weather. It's current; it's of general interest; everyone has something to say.
If that's the case, one person who never needs to worry about how to break the ice at a party is Sharon Lau. In fact, as senior scientific officer for the Hong Kong Observatory, specialising in aviation forecasting techniques and services, she has at her disposal enough data from radar observations, ground stations, polar orbiting and geostationary satellites to keep an audience entertained all evening!
The technology now available for her daily work is still a source of fascination and emphasises just how far things have come from the numerical weather prediction models Ms Lau first learned to use in the 1980s. With a variety of systems developed in-house, and with the accuracy of raw data and signals provided under international agreements being regularly upgraded, adapting to new equipment has become routine. "When there is any new technology in the office, we are like kids and all want to be the first to try it," she laughs.
This ties in with Ms Lau's early ambition of wanting to put an interest in science to practical use. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a degree in physics, she initially worked as a computer programmer for a bank, but soon realised that the opportunities offered by a job advertisement she saw for the observatory would suit her far better.
After being appointed as a scientific officer, she was sent on a one-year MSc course in meteorology at the University of Reading in the UK as part of the standard training. On completing this, Ms Lau then returned to Hong Kong and joined the forecasting office, becoming an expert in the fronts, monsoons, cyclones and heavy rains of a tropical climate.
In forecasting, every day is a new challenge, but you can always check how you are doing
"The main thing is to interpret the data, make your forecast and then closely monitor the weather system as it develops," she explains, pointing out that separate forecasts are prepared for marine areas, South China coastal waters, and for the media and general public. Subsequently, she transferred to positions in telecommunications, focusing on the exchange of data with stations overseas, and then to the new airport project in 1992-3.
"After working on the development side looking at equipment and computing, I later moved on to studying the wind shear at Chek Lap Kok", she says. "It is created by winds from the south as they flow across the complex terrain of Lantau, as well as by convection, and makes the airport a challenging site."
Ms Lau is now officer in charge of the airport meteorological office, overseeing 21 staff working four shifts around the clock and providing observations and forecasts for the aviation community.
"We follow the recommendations and standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation," she explains, "and also develop new products and services for our clients – the airlines. For example, Cathay Pacific is now doing polar flights to New York, so we have had to develop new forecast products for this flight route."
All airlines serving Hong Kong receive an individual "package", according to their needs. These forecasts are made available via a Web-based system, and information for specific departures is sent two to three hours before take-off, based on schedule details obtained from the Airport Authority's database.
Pilots of outbound flights continue to pull information off the system as they make final calculations of load factors and weights, and can review bad weather alternatives. Weather information is also displayed for air traffic controllers to relay directly to pilots.
Inbound flights usually start checking local conditions when they are 30 minutes to two hours out of Hong Kong. They receive relevant observations and warnings either via an audio channel or by digital download on board the aircraft.
Ms Lau points out that the observatory's work is diverse and allows involvement in specialist areas of research, such as storm surges, earthquakes and the marine environment. There are also many chances for international exposure, with overseas conferences, invitations to publish research papers, and honorary positions with respected organisations.
Since the observatory is a government department, there has recently been a freeze on recruitment, but scientific officers are once again being admitted. "For those interested in science, there are opportunities if they meet the required educational standards and have the necessary aptitude," says Ms Lau. "Particularly in forecasting, every day is a new challenge, but you can always check how you are doing!"
Even in times of past political difficulties, the observatory continued to receive meteorological data from China. As Ms Lau points out, most weather systems in winter come from the north and, therefore, it is important to maintain good contacts and obtain reliable information from the mainland.
The observatory has annual meetings with counterparts in Macau and Guangzhou to discuss projects and find ways to improve the forecasting service. A new network to track lightning, with sensors over Macau and Sanshui, has recently been established and radar information is also regularly exchanged.
Reciprocal visits are arranged to share experience and gain a better understanding of forecasting systems, but are only short term.