Severe Tropical Cyclone Owen

30 November - 15 December 2018


Severe tropical cyclone Owen was a long-lived, early season system that moved from the Coral Sea into the Gulf of Carpentaria and back again. Owen reached tropical cyclone intensity on two occasions during its lifetime, although it produced most of its impacts as a tropical low.

The precursor tropical low was identified and tracked in the Solomon Sea from November 30th. The system moved south into the Coral Sea near longitude 155 degrees east and intensified to tropical cyclone Owen at 4pm AEST on December 2nd. Owen moved southeast as a category 1 cyclone for approximately 36 hours before weakening back to a tropical low.

The remains of Owen turned west and approached the north tropical coast of Queensland about six days later. Ex-Owen made landfall near Port Douglas at around 4am AEST on December 10th as a vigorous tropical low. Wind gusts of 100 km/h at Low Isles and 93 km/h at Arlington Reef were recorded as the system approached. On the mainland Cairns Airport and Innisfail Airport both recorded wind gusts up to 87 km/h. Trees were brought down by winds at Yarrabah, east of Cairns. Heavy rains also accompanied the system's landfall – in the 24 hours to 9am on December 10th, Kirrama Range Alert (west of Cardwell) recorded 349 mm, Flaggy Creek Alert (between Cairns and Port Douglas) recorded 286 mm (including 200 mm in 6 hours), and Cardwell Tide Alert recorded 278 mm.

Ex-Owen crossed Cape York Peninsula and emerged into the Gulf of Carpentaria around midnight AEST on December 11th. By 7pm AEST it had reached the middle of the Gulf and redeveloped into a tropical cyclone. It continued moving west while intensifying, and reached category 3 just as it made landfall on an uninhabited stretch of the southwestern Gulf coast, northeast of Port McArthur, at about 6:30am ACST on December 13th.

The cyclone lingered right on the coast for a few hours, before turning back east and virtually retracing its steps across the Gulf of Carpentaria. It maintained category 3 and made landfall again on the southwestern Cape York Peninsula coast, north of the Gilbert River Mouth, at 3am AEST on December 15th. During this phase, Owen was notable for its tiny eye – not clearly visible on satellite imagery, but less than 20 km across on radar. As a result of this, the peak winds associated with Owen were very localised and the Centre Island AWS on the periphery of the cyclone recorded just 3 hours of gale force winds with a peak gust of 91 km/h. There were no significant impacts to populated areas apart from several remote roads cut by floodwaters. The residents of King Ash Bay and Bing Bong near Port McArthur were evacuated to Borroloola during the event.  

Owen weakened to a tropical low for the final time as it crossed the base of Cape York Peninsula during the day on December 15th. That night, ex-Owen approached the north tropical Queensland coast between Innisfail and Cardwell from the west. Its passage was accompanied by torrential rain, particularly at Halifax (east of Ingham) where an Australian record (for December) of 681 mm fell in the 24 hours to 9am AEST on the 16th. The Bruce Highway was cut north of Ingham. Two rescues occurred, including a mother and daughter rescued from their vehicle in crocodile-infested floodwaters. Sugarcane crops were impacted and hundreds of chickens were lost to flooding. Lucinda also recorded a 100 km/h wind gust as ex-Owen moved offshore.

After moving back into the Coral Sea, the remains of Owen persisted as a tropical low for several days, but did not reform into a tropical cyclone.