Historical Impacts in the Gulf of Carpentaria

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Selection of tropical cyclones that occurred between 1858 - 2007

Date Description of Impact
5 March 1887 From all reports, the storm surge from the disastrous 1887 cyclone, flooded almost all of Burketown. Only the highest part of town, near where the Council Office is currently located, escaped the waters from the Gulf of Carpentaria. A copy of a 1918 report to the Queensland Parliament from the Department of Harbours and Rivers Engineers refers to the sea rising to 5.5 metres above the highest spring tide level at the Albert River Heads. This level is about 8 metres above Australian Height Datum. 7 people out of a population of 138 died in the cyclone. Storm winds commenced at 11 am from the SE and backed to the E and the NE increasing in violence until 10 pm when virtually the whole of Burketown was devastated. The storm surge arrived at 7 pm.
The Douglas Mawson Cyclone

March 1923

This cyclone tracked directly from Coen towards Groote Eylandt at a speed of 5 to 6 knots. Large waves hit Karumba and a storm surge inundated the flats for miles on 30th and the 31st. At Burketown, a storm surge of 2.7 m was reported and at Port McArthur, a storm surge of between 5.5 m and 2.4 m was reported. A more accurate storm surge height was obtained from the mission house on Groote Island. At 9 am on the 30th they recorded 163 mm of rain over the previous 24 hours. At 4 pm the wind turned southerly and increased to gale force and then further increased to hurricane force from the SW at 6 pm, with torrential rain. At this time, flooding, combined with storm surge caused the water to reach the top of the river bank which was 3.7 m above both the mean tide level and the predicted tide level. By 9 pm, the roof and the front wall blew off and the rain gauge overflowed (more than 250 mm of rain). At 10 pm the east wall was blown out and the water reached upstairs, which was 6.1 m above mean tide level and 5.6 m above predicted tide. At midnight the water level peaked at 7.0 m above the mean and 6.6 m above that predicted. The wind then turned westerly with stronger gusts. At 4 am the building collapsed as the water receded. At 6 am the wind was down to gale force and the water level was 4.6 m above the mean level. The ground became visible at 10 am. Few trees were left standing. At Roper River, roofs were blown off and trees felled. The abnormal sea conditions in the Gulf of Carpentaria led to the loss of a well-found Gulf of Carpentaria steamer, the Douglas Mawson, with the loss of 20 lives. The eastern islands of Torres Strait (usually cyclone free) were badly damaged. Darnley, Coconut, Mabuiag and Murray Islands suffered much damage. Houses were unroofed, trees blown down, gardens damaged, luggers dismasted and Darnley settlement was virtually destroyed. Banks of living coral 1.5 m high were dashed up by the waves .
20 February 1936 This tropical cyclone passed directly over Mornington Island. Rev R.H. Wilson of the Mornington Island Mission reported that one barometer (an aneroid in the Mission's lugger) dropped to 953.3 hPa. The other barometer (a household aneroid) registered 949.7 hPa. The household barometer usually sat on 1010 to 1012 hPa so the reading was reasonably reliable. At 7 am on the 20th the house barometer dropped to 989 hPa. The barometer then dropped rapidly, however interest was lost in monitoring it due to the ferocity of the wind. The barometer was not observed again until after a 1 ½ hr lull when the 949.7 hPa reading was made. The renewed wind was worse than before. Most of the buildings were demolished and there was a storm surge estimated at about 1.5 m.
23 February 1948 This tropical cyclone moved from the Groote Eylandt area and made landfall to the west of Mornington Island. Aborigines described a storm surge covering all but the highest parts of Bentinck Island. The water deeply covered places where they lived and obtained their water. This caused wells and springs to go salty and eventually the inhabitants were forced to abandon the Island. It was later estimated that on Mornington Island the rise in sea water was 3.7 m above the highest normal tide mark. On Mornington Island, the surge caused large eucalypts to die and had caused a change in vegetation to salt loving species in some areas. It was assessed that the water on Bentinck Island also rose 3.7 m above high water. After landfall, the town of Borroloola was badly damaged. The hotel was wrecked and a number of other buildings were destroyed.

19 December 1976

Ted crossed the coast near Mornington Island and passed directly over Burketown where a central pressure of 950 hPa was recorded. Damage in its path was almost total. Mornington Island's 700 inhabitants were rendered homeless with 95% of its buildings damaged. Burketown was similarly affected. A large storm surge accompanied the cyclone which extended 20 km inland near Burketown Logs were piled 2 to 3 m high and a small wharf was destroyed. Tides at Karumba were 2 m above normal and badly damaged the wharf and prawn processing installations. Magowra Station (southwest of Normanton) reported that the sea came 30 km inland. Extensive flooding and wind damage occurred in stations inland from Burketown. The hurricane force winds extended a long way inland, for example, Cowan Downs near the Burke and Wills Roadhouse had out buildings unroofed, windows blown out of the main building, telephone posts bent to ground level and trees a metre in diameter snapped. Livestock losses caused by drowning and low temperatures were estimated to be 250,000.

23 March 1984

Kathy crossed the coast near Borroloola and Centre Island on the morning of the 23rd. The cyclone was a very small system with an eye radius of 10 km and gales extending out to only 65 km from the centre. The anemometer at Centre Island was blown away however before this it recorded a 10 minute average wind speed of 100 knots with gusts to 125 knots. The eye passed over Centre Island and a pressure of 940 hPa was recorded. A nearby trawler recorded a verified 938 hPa. 20 prawn trawlers were sheltered in the Pellew Islands, 1 sunk, 3 ran aground and most of the others were scattered over a large area with some damage. 1 crewman from the sunken trawler drowned. The cyclone made landfall during a spring high tide and a 3 m storm surge was estimated from debris lines on the eastern side of Vanderlin Island. Sea turtles were stranded up to 7 km inland near the McArthur River mouth. The cyclone caused devastation to woodland vegetation in the Pellew Group of islands and inland for 250 km. Several holiday camps in the islands were destroyed or badly damaged. At Borroloola, 45 km inland, several buildings were wrecked and many others damaged.