Sunday, June 14, 2009

Our Worst Ever Natural Disaster

Bathurst Bay is a quiet, scenic tropical port near Cape Melville on the far north Queensland coastline. But on March 4 1899, it was far from serene and was in fact the site of probably the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Australia. It remains a shocking example of what happened in past times when there was no organised tropical cyclone warning system, when it was possible for a severe cyclone to arrive without any warning, resulting in a terrible toll of life and property.

On that day what is believed to have been a category 5 tropical cyclone smashed across the area creating a trail of havoc and destruction. A large number of vessels that comprised a pearling fleet were lying at anchor in the bay and these were all overwhelmed by the devastating winds and huge seas that arose, virtually out of nowhere. 307 sailors died in this disaster and 152 vessels were wrecked with some driven well inland by the ferocious winds.

Left: The possible path of the cyclone
(Click to enlarge)

But the cyclone also produced a massive storm surge, in fact the largest ever recorded in Australia’s history. (Some accounts actually claim that this was the largest storm surge ever recorded anywhere in the world) Storm surges are produced when very strong winds blowing from the sea to the land drive the ocean waters inland and this can produce heavy coastal flooding. The storm surge is also increased when the surrounding atmospheric pressure is very low and this produces a lifting effect on the level of the sea.

In this particular event, the orientation of the coastline is roughly east to west, and its likely that the position of the cyclone centre was just to the west of Bathurst Bay, funnelling the winds directly across the area.

This storm surge was estimated to have produced sea levels some 14 metres higher than normal and driven the ocean some 5 km inland. Over 100 indigenous Australians also died in the disaster, many drowning in the storm surge whilst trying to rescue sailors washed ashore from the pearling fleet.

There was a report later received from a captain who survived the maelstrom that his ships barometer had fallen to 914 hPa during the middle of the storm, which is one of the lowest surface pressures ever recorded.

Bizarre effects were discovered by shore parties in the following days, including the bodies of hundreds of fish and large sharks carried far inland. There was a report of dead dolphins lying some 15 metres above the beach on nearby Flinders Island.

A memorial tablet was later erected on nearby Cape Melville to mark the site of this tragic event.

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