The devastating natural disaster that will only intensify

In this series of explanations, examines the concerns and fears surrounding natural disasters, examining the potential impacts on Australia.
Tropical cyclone killed hundreds of Australians and caused billions of dollars in damage – and we have been warned that it will only get worse.

With a new hurricane season upon us, what does the coming months have in store for us?

We explore the impacts of cyclones and what lies ahead for the future.

Damaged yachts in Port Hinchinbrook, Queensland after Cyclone Yasi in 2011.
Damaged yachts in Port Hinchinbrook, Queensland, after Cyclone Yasi in 2011. (Glen Hunt)

How many people have died in Australia from tropical cyclones?

An estimated 206 tropical cyclone-related deaths were recorded in Australia between 1970 and 2017.

This is based on data from a report published by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

The report also noted that there were approximately 1,593 deaths from tropical cyclone winds and flooding from 1830 to 1989, but these figures are imperfect due to flaws and inaccuracies in historical records.

Records show that over time tropical cyclone fatalities and mortality rates have dropped thanks to more effective warning systems.

But the research notes that the trend may cease or be reversed with any increase in storm frequency or intensity, as well as increasing populations on Australia’s tropical coasts.

How much does tropical cyclone damage cost?

Tropical cyclones are one of the costliest natural disasters to affect Australia.

Hurricane Tracy, which devastated Darwin in 1974, is Australia’s most expensive with an insurance damage bill of over $5 billion.
While Cyclone Dinah resulted in $4.68 billion in insurance payments – the second most expensive in the country – after the weather system destroyed the southern coasts of queensland and New South Wales in 1967.

The costs associated with extreme weather events and disasters are likely to change in the future due to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

In a low emissions scenario, where timely action will see emissions begin to decline and reach zero by 2100, the cost of natural disasters to the Australian economy will reach at least $73 billion per year by 2060.

This is according to a Deloitte Access Economics report, published in 2021.

“Increased costs will be driven by a combination of climate change, population growth in exposed areas and real property value,” the report said.

The report notes that the cost “will increase significantly” under alternative emissions scenarios.

Below is a summary of Australia’s 20 most expensive cyclones:

How many cyclones have hit Australia?

On average, around 11 cyclones move through the Australian region each year, but the exact figure varies from year to year due to climatic factors.

For example, fewer systems occur during El Nino years compared to La Nina years.

About four systems cross the Australian coast during each hurricane season, which generally runs from November 1 to April 30.

According to Weatherzone, nine tropical cyclones passed through the Australian region during the 2021/2022 season.

A monstrous wave submerges Carruthers Drive in the town of Dolls Point in New South Wales on February 7, 1974 after Cyclone Pam.
A monstrous wave submerges Carruthers Drive in the town of Dolls Point in New South Wales on February 7, 1974, after Cyclone Pam. (Fairfax Media Archive)

Comparatively, there were eight in the 2020/2021 season and seven in the 2019/2020 season.

This includes systems that have touched down and have not touched down.

The region includes the areas of responsibility of Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

The area between the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland and the Pilbara Coast in Western Australia typically experiences the most cyclones in a season.

Should the number of cyclones increase due to climate change?

The total number of cyclones in Australia is expected to decrease – but that’s not all.

Climate models predict an increase in the proportion of high-intensity storms, with stronger winds and greater precipitation, according to the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub.

University of Melbourne expert Professor Kevin Walsh agrees with the modeling.

A child plays in the sea foam at Froggies Beach in Coolangatta after Cyclone Marcia in 2015.
A child plays in the sea foam at Froggies Beach in Coolangatta after Cyclone Marcia in 2015. (Frank McGrath Photography)

“The most likely outcome for future tropical cyclone frequency in the Australian region is a slight decrease,” Walsh said.

“It is likely, however, that there will be an increase in the maximum possible intensity of tropical cyclones, as there are good theoretical reasons why this should occur.

“Another forecast that has decent confidence is an increase in tropical cyclone rainfall.”

Will the changes pose a risk to Australians?

It is difficult to predict whether changes in cyclone formation and behavior will pose a risk to Australia, according to Walsh.

“The crucial factor is whether there will be an increase in intense tropical cyclones hitting the coast, as they are the ones causing the most damage,” he said.

“These are rare and therefore difficult to predict.”

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A likely increase in tropical cyclone rainfall poses a risk of flooding.

“It’s possible for tropical cyclones to hit a little further south than they currently do, but the most vulnerable areas will remain the most populated areas of the tropical coasts,” he said.

“Storm surges are a risk in coastal regions and this is expected to increase due to sea level rise, a very reliable prediction of climate change.

“Although there is a good range of predictions of future sea level rise, due to the lack of information on future greenhouse gas emissions and some scientific uncertainty regarding their effects on the sea level.”

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