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Published: February 12th 2010
The New Year here in Far North Queensland is not much like that back home in Blighty. We upped-sticks to Australia back in 1997, but there are still some things round here you never really seem to get used to.
After a steamy Christmas Day barbeque round the pool, January heralds the start of The Wet. There is precisely zero danger of having to scrape the ice off your windscreen of a morning, but we still suffer under leaden skies, more rain falling in Cairns last January than for the entire year in London. There’s no time to let this dampen your spirits, though, as it also marks the start of an entirely more exciting meteorological phenomenon: Cyclone Season.
The name itself is enough to grab most people’s attention. Officially Cyclone Season runs right through from November to April, but in reality the main action seldom strays outside January to March.
As Northern Europe has learnt with the recent Big Freeze, Climate Change might not turn out to be such a theoretical concept after-all. Here in the tropics global warming is predicted to bring not just warmer temperatures, but along with it more frequent and severe cyclones.
And the trouble with cyclones is you never really know quite what you’re going to get.
Cyclones form over tropical oceans, the large body of warm water heating the air and creating a low-pressure system which, due to the earth’s rotation, starts to swirl: anti-clockwise in the Northern hemisphere, clockwise here in the south. These systems intensify as they cross the water’s surface, feeding off themselves and continuing to spiral out of control until making landfall when, deprived of the ocean’s warming energy, they tend to rapidly fizzle out.
Trouble is, between landfall and fizzle all hell is likely to break loose.
The most destructive winds of all are to be found around the calm central eye. In category 1 cyclones, winds are around 80mph, or only a little over gale force. A Category 5 on the other hand, is something you’d really rather not mess with, an awesome destructive power capable of wiping whole towns off the map. Luckily Category 5s are few and far between, but as Darwin found to its cost, even a Category 4 packs quite a punch, the whole city being effectively destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, a particularly compact system which scored
a direct bullseye on the night of Christmas Eve 1974, taking 71 lives.
Fortunately for the rest of us, Santa escaped unscathed, heading off on his merry way without any apparent injury.
It has to be said Darwin suffered particularly bad luck. Northern Australia is astonishingly sparsely populated by European standards, yet this particular system, only 30 miles across, chose to cross the coast directly over the only coastal city for a thousand miles around. So far nowhere else has been quite as unlucky, but it’s enough to keep you on your toes, particularly as the wonders of modern technology now ensure several days warning whenever a cyclone is on its way.
In Queensland cyclones generally form way out across the Coral Sea in a region just off the Solomon Islands, and track their way westwards from there towards the east coast, intensifying as they come. Eerily, despite destructive wind speeds at their centre, the entire system tends to move at a relatively modest pace, leaving you on tenterhooks for days. They may veer off at any stage, exiting your personal radar, but some will continue doggedly westwards with menacing intent. So far only Cyclone Larry, the
monster Category 5 storm of 2006, has struck the coast anywhere near us. Fortunately for Cairns, Larry’s path remained so linear that it hit exactly where it was predicted to four days earlier, sixty miles to our south. Not such good news for the residents of Innisfail, though, who weren’t that far from a direct hit. Miraculously there were no fatalities, but there was widespread devastation to the town, banana crops and rainforest, lush foliage stripped away leaving nothing but downed trees and bare branches for miles around.
As I write this, the first system of the season, Cyclone Neville, has just slammed into Cape Flattery, 180 miles to our north. And true to the climatologists’ warnings, a second system has formed directly in its wake. Olga is tracking in rather closer to home; as of yesterday afternoon it was headed straight for Port Douglas, just 45 miles north. By midnight it had started to veer southwards, which made for an interesting night’s sleep. Fortunately Olga had a nocturnal change of heart, heading back north instead, before coming to a relative standstill off Cooktown, 150 miles away.
We now sit with bated breath, awaiting her next move, victims
to her every whim.
Most likely she’ll pass us by with little more than a good soaking to add to this year’s January tally.
Then again, you never really know; she could perform a neat U-turn, or just reverse park straight onto our front porch like some particularly unwelcome Big Bad Wolf.
It does lead one to question the wisdom of residing in such a volatile part of the world. Like the persistent smoker who’ll never give up, the millions playing Russian roulette along the San Andreas fault, or, dare I say it, the former residents of New Orleans, we never seem able to admit that one day it just might happen to us.
And even in those rare moments that we do, once you factor in the nine months of sunshine, the Great Barrier Reef on your doorstep, and the stunning views from the surrounding rainforest-clad hills, it’s easy to argue that’s a fair trade for a few sleepless nights each year.
No doubt soon enough I'll spot some other blogger's tales from some another exotic hotspot, and briefly dream of relocating there instead.
Here’s hoping when I next log on that I still have a house left to read it in.
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