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Cyclone History – Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays

airlie beach cyclone history

While Debbie was by far the most destructive and devastating for all of us here, it’s important not to forget the cyclones that came before.  Below the list is a track map of all the cyclones that passed Airlie Beach within 100km.
  • ADA – 1970
  • GERTIE – 1971 
  • VERA – 1974
  • DAWN – 1976
  • OTTO – 1977
  • GORDON – 1979
  • KERRY – 1979
  • PAUL – 1980
  • PIERRE – 1985
  • CHARLIE – 1988
  • IVOR – 1990
  • CELESTE – 1996
  • ERICA – 1993
  • ULUI – 2010
  • ANTHONY – 2011
  • DYLAN – 2014
  • ITA – 2014
  • DEBBIE – 2017


airlie beach cyclone history

What is a cyclone?

If you are familiar with a hurricane or typhoon then you already know what a cyclone is.  A cyclone is the same weather system as them with one main difference, rotation direction.

Cyclones spin clockwise, whereas typhoons and hurricanes in the northern hemisphere spin anti-clockwise.  All three can be dangerous weather systems that mostly consist of strong winds, big waves and heavy rain.

Wind speed is what determines the category of the cyclone from 1 to 5, below are the official classifications.

  • Category 1 – 90-125kph ( Beaufort 8 )
  • Category 2 – 125-164kph ( Beaufort 10 )
  • Category 3 – 165-224kph ( Beaufort 12 )
  • Category 4 – 225-279kph ( Beaufort 12 )
  • Category 5 – more than 280kph ( Beaufort 12 )

When is cyclone season in Australia?

Cyclone season in Australia runs from February to April with the majority of the action happening through March.  Cyclones rarely form towards the start and end of the season but it is possible.

In any given year there could be 100 or more cyclones moving through the pacific and luckily for us most of them stay East of Australia.  Countries like Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji tend to be the most commonly affected by cyclones.

Western Australia also gets cyclones in its northern regions at the same time of year as the East coast which can be equally as powerful and destructive.  The image below shows where we are likely to see cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes form.  The orange shaded area roughly represents 25 degrees north and south of the equator which is represented by the red line.

Similar systems can form outside of this area, such as the famous East Coast Low systems experienced on the coast of New South Wales, though they are very rare.when is cyclone season in australia (1)

What kind of risks are involved with the different categories of cyclones?

Before dismissing any cyclone, please remember that they can all be dangerous if you are not properly prepared.

Category 1

This will mostly involve heavy rain, flash flooding and some road closures.

Category 2

Heavy rain, flash flooding, road closures and fallen trees.

Category 3

Heavy rain, flash flooding, large tidal surges, tree damage, some building damage.

Category 4

All of the above with the addition of small trees making their way down the street.

Category 5

All of the above and a little more.when is cyclone season in australia (2)

What to do if you are on holiday and a cyclone is approaching?

Preparation is vital in this situation.  Unfortunately, cyclones move rapidly and change direction without warning.  If a cyclone is heading your way, that does not necessarily mean it’s going to hit you, though you need to be ready just in case it does.

Things you need to prepare:

  • Food (non-perishable)
  • Water (as much as you can bottle)
  • Full tank of fuel
  • First aid kit (check to make sure it has everything)
  • Emergency contact numbers are written down
  • Beer (being trapped inside can be boring)
  • Battery operated radio for emergency updates
  • Torches and spare batteries
  • Candles and a lighter
  • Ice in the esky for anything that needs to be kept cool
  • Windows and doors closed (perhaps boarded up)
  • All outside furniture, pot plants and toys moved inside
  • Everything unplugged from wall power sockets
  • Towels and dry clothes in a watertight bag

What happens when a cyclone hits?

Cyclones are huge weather systems that often span well over 100km in diameter, so cyclones can last for a long time.  There will normally be increasing rain for a couple of days before the wind even starts to pick up.  Once the wind arrives, it will increase quickly, depending on the speed at which the cyclone is moving.  The edge of the cyclone is where the weather is the worst and that could sit on top of you for anywhere between 20 mins and 4 hours depending on how fast the system is moving.

Strong wind is normally your signal to bunker down.  A cyclone will normally only affect coastal towns as they dissipate rather quickly when they move over land.  This was not quite the case with cyclone Debbie, as she sat just off the coast for much longer than expected.

While the system is moving over you, the wind will be intense, the rain will come in sideways and it can certainly be a little scary.  Luckily that part is over quickly.

After the system moves over the coast, the wind will ease quickly and the rain will soon stop falling too.  You will then have to assess the damage and hope that your preparation supplies are sufficient.

After a category 3 or above, roads will likely be closed and power will certainly be out.  This can last for a while depending on the damage done.  Debbie knocked out power to Airlie Beach for 2 weeks and damaged the water supply for 4 weeks.when is cyclone season in australia (3)

Should you be scared of a cyclone?

Not really and here is why.  These days we have plenty of notice that a cyclone is potentially approaching, which means there is plenty of time to get away from where it crosses the coast.  If you choose to stay, then you will also have plenty of time to gather supplies and make your home safe.  Speaking of homes, anything built after 1982 in a cyclone area has to adhere to strict building rules to ensure they are safe shelters during a cyclone.  

On top of this, there are cyclone shelters that are easily accessible from most coastal areas.

Airlie Beaches closest cyclone shelters are;

Play it safe, follow government advice and be well prepared.


How will you know if a cyclone is approaching?

Most news channels will cover cyclone activity and track them if they could possibly become a threat to us.  On top of this, you can visit the Bureau Of Meteorology website and check for the latest cyclone advice.  This is extremely comprehensive information that can be a little hard for a first-timer to follow.

There are also storm chasers around Australia that make their living by following these systems and keeping us informed along the way.  Check out Oz Cyclone Chasers for live streams from within cyclones.when is cyclone season in australia (4)


Cyclones are the perfect mix of scary and exciting.  They are dangerous but can easily be prepared for.  We have certainly seen our fair share in The Whitsunday region and a few of which have certainly caused a lot of heartaches.  Although, the majority of them have been nothing more than a windy rainstorm that lasts for a few days.

Provided everything is secured early and preparations have been made, Airlie Beach locals actually seem to enjoy the spectacle of it.  Pounding waves where ripples are normally seen, the deafening roar of 200kph plus winds and rain that literally moves horizontally.   It certainly is something special to witness.