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Tropical Cyclones in the Northern Territory

Major Northern Territory Cyclones / Cyclones Affecting Darwin

Frequency and Movement

Tracks of tropical cyclones over a 20 year period in the Northern Territory. Bureau of Meteorology.


In the Northern Territory cyclones occur most frequently in the Gulf of Carpentaria near Gove, and in a line moving west from the Darwin area. On average there are two cyclones per year in the Gulf of Carpentaria and one per year in the Arafura or Timor Seas.

Major Northern Territory Cyclones

(Source: Murphy 1984)

24-25 November 1839

A severe cyclone wrecked the early British settlement at Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula. Most of the buildings were demolished or badly damaged. The Royal Navy sloop Pelorus was driven ashore and half buried in the mud. The barometer fell to 965 hpa as the cyclone centre arrived and a storm surge to about 3 metres above the high water mark occurred.

6-7 Jan 1897 - "The Great Hurricane"

Late on 6 January a severe cyclone struck the township of Palmerston (Darwin) reducing most of the buildings to ruins. The pearling fleet in the harbour was decimated and altogether 28 lives were lost. A lowest pressure of 960 hpa was recorded at Charles Point while 296 mm of rain fell on the town overnight. Destruction of the forest occurred over a huge area west and south of the township.

25-26 Feb 1915

On 25 February a severe cyclone passed west over Croker Island, Cobourg Peninsula, and then the Tiwi Islands early on the following day. Several fishing vessels were sunk and at least six people drowned. Severe damage was caused on the Tiwi Islands with 250 mm of rain in eight hours recorded at Bathurst Island.

3-11 Mar 1919

A cyclone formed in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf near Wyndham where 440 mm of rain fell in 40 hours. The cyclone intensified as it moved northwards passing just west of Charles Point late on 5 March. Moderate damage was caused to the Lightkeeper's buildings and also in Darwin harbour where two vessels were sunk. The full force of the cyclone was felt at Bathurst Island Mission which was destroyed by hurricane force winds and a five metre storm surge. Thousands of trees were uprooted at Cape Don as the cyclone swung eastwards along the north coast and weakened, only to reintensify several days later in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

29-31 Mar 1923 -"Douglas Mawson Cyclone"

After causing havoc in the Torres Strait Islands a severe cyclone looped across Cape York Peninsula into the eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. It was here that the coastal steamer Douglas Mawson with 20 people on board disappeared without trace. The cyclone continued southeast across the gulf and struck the Emerald River Mission on Groote Eylandt with great fury on Easter Saturday (31 March). Hurricane force winds accompanied by a 6.7 metre storm surge lasted throughout the night, completely destroying the mission house and stripping bare the surrounding forest. Discovery of wreckage from the ill-fated Douglas Mawson one year later triggered rumours of survivors being held captive by Arnhem land Aborigines. These rumours persisted for many years but were never substantiated.

8-11 Mar 1937

A severe cyclone moved into Darwin from the northwest causing severe damage throughout the town and the death of one resident. Huge seas ran in the harbour with waves breaking over the cliffs on the foreshore. Winds gusted to 158 km/h.

4-8 Jan 1940

This cyclone was notable not so much for its intensity, but for the huge flood that it produced over the Top End, especially in the Roper Valley. During the first few days of January a deep monsoon depression formed over Eastern Arnhem land. Over the next week the system continued to intensify, transforming its character into a tropical cyclone as it drifted eastwards into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Roper River rose 25 metres, sweeping away the Roper Mission and badly damaging the police station. Severe flooding occurred over a vast area of the Top End.

29 Nov-3 Dec 1948

A severe cyclone produced heavy damage on the Tiwi Islands and moderate damage in Darwin. The pearling lugger La Grange was wrecked off Melville Island with the loss of the entire crew of ten. Winds over the Tiwi Islands were estimated at 160 km/h.

5-6 Mar 1973 - Cyclone Madge

Severe building and tree damage were caused on Groote Eylandt and at Numbulwar with the passage of Cyclone Madge. Wind gusts to 180 km/h were estimated at Angurugu where 421 mm of rain fell in 14 hours. A jetty was washed away and a barge sunk.

21-25 Dec 1974 - Cyclone Tracy

20-23 Mar 1984 - Cyclone Kathy

Cyclone Kathy formed in the Coral Sea and moved westward across Cape York Peninsula, entering the Gulf of Carpentaria on 20 March. The cyclone intensified rapidly as it swung southeast towards the Pellew Islands. A prawn trawling fleet of 20 vessels was caught in the cyclone eye as it passed through the Pellew Islands during the night of 22 March. One vessel was sunk and two others stranded on rocks. One crewman was drowned. Complete devastation of the forest occurred over most of the island group and several holiday camps were flattened. At Centre Island weather station the pressure fell to 940 hpa and wind gusts to 232 km/h were recorded before the recorder mast blew down. A storm surge of 4.2 metres occurred on Vanderlin Island and hurled large numbers of green turtles and dugongs onto the mainland salt flats. Tree damage extended inland through Borroloola for more than 200 kilometres. Moderate damage was caused in Borroloola township.

19-25 March 1985 - Cyclone Sandy

After forming in the central Gulf of Carpentaria Cyclone Sandy moved south and then west over Bing Bong Station and Port Roper. Two fishing trawlers were beached on North Island, Bing Bong homestead was wrecked, and extensive damage was caused to vegetation and seagrass beds along the southwest Gulf coast. Surges up to three metres were experienced, with turtles and pilot whales being swept ashore. Centre Island weather station recorded a minimum pressure of 973 hpa and a maximum wind gust of 220 km/h. (Source: Bureau of Meteorology)

Tropical Cyclones Affecting Darwin

(Source: Murphy 1984)

Over the years many tropical cyclones have passed close to Darwin bringing heavy rain and on occasions strong wind, but little recorded damage. The following list includes only those cyclones which had a significant impact on the population centre.

Jan 1882 Strong gales hit Darwin with severe damage to many buildings.

Jan 1897 Remembered as the Great Hurricane. Violent winds with torrential rain flattened the township and decimated the pearling fleet. At least 28 lives were lost and natural vegetation destroyed over a wide area.

Dec 1915 Severe damage in Darwin harbour with three vessels sunk and two others badly damaged. Widespread destruction of trees around Charles Point.

Apr 1917 Moderate damage caused to buildings in Darwin. Many trees destroyed north of the town. Sampan sunk near Port Blaze with three lives lost.

Mar 1919 Two sailing vessels sunk in Darwin harbour along with several smaller boats. Building damage at Charles Point lighthouse. Hurricane winds and severe storm surge destroyed the Bathurst Island Mission, where a baby was drowned.

Mar 1937 Darwin township was severely damaged by hurricane force winds. Huge seas ran in the harbour, and several boats were stranded. Widespread destruction of the vegetation.

Dec 1948 Severe gales caused moderate damage in Darwin. Damage was more severe on the Tiwi Islands. A fishing vessel was wrecked near Melville Island and the crew of 10 drowned.

Dec 1974 Cyclone Tracy. City of Darwin devastated, with 65 people killed and majority of 45,000 population left homeless. At least 90% of homes either demolished or badly damaged. Natural vegetation around Darwin laid bare.

Mar 1981 Cyclone Max. Gales in Darwin with considerable garden damage but only superficial building damage. Cyclone Max is notable for the fact that it was the first cyclone to pass through Darwin following Cyclone Tracy, and the response of the local people to the warnings was remarkable.

 

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