Southeast Queensland is overdue for a coastal crossing by cyclone
“This is an evolving situation. Be sure to keep an eye on our latest updates and forecasts.” - Bureau warning, 20/02/19
Thirteen days after it was named by the Fijian met service, Tropical Cyclone Oma has moved just 1,500 kms. Much of that time was spent idling between Vanuatu and New Caledonia, however Oma got the attention of the surfing community because of her forecast path: once it cleared New Caledonia it was predicted to move south and provide a large - and largely overdue - swell to SE Queensland and northern NSW.
Up until a week ago there was general agreement on Oma’s path, but the two major weather models have since diverged. The US model - GFS - has Oma staying offshore in a slow southwards drift, however the European model is more alarming with TC Oma drifting first south then west as it approaches the Queensland coast somewhere near Fraser Island.
The tone of coverage has changed now that people realise Oma may make landfall along a crowded stretch of coast. "It's now looking increasingly likely that it will continue on a westerly track towards the southern Queensland coast," said Sam Campbell from the Bureau of Meteorology.
Exactly twenty years ago Mike Perry wrote an article in Deep, the now defunct surf magazine, called ‘Season of Plenty’ where he detailed the incredible summer of 1998/99. Wrote Perry: "...from the ninth of December through to the eighth of March there were only about five days under three feet on the whole East Coast."
Only three cyclones formed in the Coral Sea basin that season - Olinda, Pete, and Rona-Frank - making it a below average cyclone season there. The rest of the swell came from Tasman lows and a relentless trade wind belt. Perry wound up the article with this warning:
“This may be a more normal weather pattern to which we’re returning. But unlike the old days, there has been a massive buildup of property and construction along all of our coastlines and that means the potential for loss is enormous.”
Perry was wrong on the first point, season 98/99 was an anomaly and not the beginning of a normal weather pattern, but correct on the second. Extreme weather events are rare, hence the name, but history shows they do happen, and while strong winds and large waves create direct danger, it's complacency that's the real threat.
Historical statistics show a cyclone will make a coastal crossing in Queensland roughly once a season, however the vast majority occur in far north Queensland or in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Coastal crossings in south east Queensland, or even northern New South Wales, are less common. Those areas often feel the distant effects of rain, wind, and of course swell, but not the direct blast of a tropical cyclone passing overhead. But again, history shows those regions can't be too complacent. The bureau's archives document cyclones making landfall as far south as Port Macquarie.
Here are a few notable events where cyclones have made landfall south of Fraser Island (note that the covention of naming tropical cyclones didn't start until season 1963/64):
1954: On 20th February a tropical cyclone, dubbed 'The Great Gold Coast Cyclone', crossed the coast at Coolangatta with a recorded pressure reading of 973 hPa. Reports from Coolangatta/Tweed Heads had pressure readings to 962 hPa. The worst damage in that area occurred around Cudgen in New South Wales where houses were blown apart and trees more than 1 m in diameter were twisted out of the ground. Widespread structural damage occurred along the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and around Brisbane. Waves at Kirra brought water onto the highway, picking up cars. 900 mm of rain was recorded at Springbrook in the 24 hour period up to landfall.
The floods and cyclone then hit the Lismore district, with gales whipping up large waves on the then 11.3 km wide Richmond River. The outer section of the jetty was swept away at Byron Bay taking with it all 22 vessels comprising the fishing fleet. The sea broke through and flooded parts of the town in Byron Bay. 30 people died in all.
Path of 'the Great Gold Coast Cyclone' in 1954
1957: In February 1957 a sustained cyclone tracked the Queensland and NSW coasts before crossing near Port Macquarie causing severe erosion.
1967: Season 1967/68 was well above average with cyclones such as Dinah and Glenda causing immense erosion along the Coolangatta shoreline. However, only one cyclone crossed the coast, that was in February when Barbara crossed the coast near Lismore. TC Barbara had already weakened but caused wind and wave damage.
1972: On the 11th February Tropical Cyclone Daisy made landfall on Fraser Island. 200 homes were damaged at Hervey Bay and more houses were unroofed in widely scattered townships. Forestry officials reported serious damage to forests near Maryborough and on Fraser Island. Flooding occurred throughout southeast Queensland with severe floods in Brisbane creeks. On the Gold Coast the mouth of Tallebudgera Creek silted up causing severe flooding upstream to commercial and domestic properties. Peak swell heights to 8.3 m were read at the South Nobby wave recording station on the Gold Coast. Severe erosion occurred down to Brunswick Heads and on the western side of Fraser Island where a 3 m storm surge was reported.
Track for Tropical Cyclone Daisy
1974: In late January Tropical Cyclone Wanda came ashore near Fraser Island. Although it didn’t hit with powerful winds, Wanda brought lots of rain. In particular, the Brisbane River reached its highest level since 1893 on January 26. That Australia Day weekend saw significant portions of Brisbane covered by two feet of water. Fourteen of the total 16 people killed in the flooding following Cyclone Wanda were killed in Brisbane. Additionally, more than 300 people suffered serious injuries and several thousand homes were destroyed. An estimated $200 million in damages was caused.
26 years after TC Wanda, TC Nancy brushed the Moreton Bay coast as a Category 1 cyclone, however it didn't cross the coast. The BOM records show no incursions since. It's alarming that the last time a cyclone crossed the coast south of Fraser Island was 45 years ago. Assuming all things being equal - though of course they're not, the climate is always subtly changing - then a coastal crossing is timely. The south east Queensland coast is long overdue.
In the wake of the Great Gold Coast Cyclone of 1954, David Berry wrote in the Sunday Mail: "The Great Cyclone - as they are calling last weekend's hurricane - will not be the last to strike."