The Bathurst Bay Cyclone, also known as Tropical Cyclone Mahina, which struck Bathurst Bay, Australia on March 5, 1899, is generally credited with the world record for storm surge. The cyclone's storm surge is variously listed at 13 - 14.6 meters (43 - 48 feet). The Category 5 cyclone was a monster--with sustained winds in excess of 175 mph and a central pressure between 880 and 914 mb. Mahina killed at least 307 people, mostly on pearling ships, and was the deadliest cyclone in Australian history. The eyewitness account of Mahina's record storm surge was provided by Constable J. M. Kenny, who journeyed to Barrow Point on Bathurst Bay to investigate a crime on the day of the storm. While camped on a ridge 40 feet above sea level and 1/2 mile inland, Kenny's camp was inundated by a storm wave, reaching waist-deep. On nearby Flinders Island, fish and dolphins were found on top of 15 meter (49 foot) cliffs. However, an analysis by Nott and Hayne (2000) found no evidence of storm-deposited debris higher than 3 - 5 meters above mean sea level in the region. They also cited two computer storm surge simulations of the cyclone that were unable to generate a surge higher than three meters.
Indeed, Bathurst Bay is not ideally situated to receive high storm surges. The Great Barrier Reef lies just 20 - 40 km offshore, and the ocean bottom near the bay is not shallow, but steeply sloped. Both of these factors should conspire to keep storm surges well below the record 13 - 14.6 meters reported. The authors concluded that the actual surge from the Bathurst Bay Cyclone may have been 3 - 5 meters. The observed inundation at 13 meters elevation, plus the observation of dolphins deposited at 15 meters above sea level could have been caused by high waves on top of the surge, they argue. Waves on top of the surge (called "wave run-up") can reach five times the wave height at the shore for steeply fronted coasts like at Bathurst Bay. Since waves in the Bathurst Bay Cyclone could easily have been 3 meters, 15 meters of wave run-up on top of the surge is quite feasible. Since wave run-up doesn't count as surge, the status of the 1899 Bathurst Bay Hurricane as the world record holder for storm surge is questionable. However, the event is certainly the world record holder for the high water mark set by a tropical cyclone's storm surge, an important category in its own right.
|Figure 1. Satellite image of Bathurst Bay, Queensland Province, Australia. The record 43 - 48 foot storm surge wave occurred on Barrow Point, marked by an "x" on the map above. Image credit: NASA.||Figure 2. Track of the 1899 Bathurst Bay cyclone. Bathurst Bay is located at the point where the 914 mb pressure is listed. Image credit: Whittingham, 1958.|
Australian Storm Surge Records
The largest storm surges in Australia occur in Gulf of Carpentaria, due to the large expanse of shallow water there (the Gulf of Carpentaria is the large bay to the left of the zoomed-in map of Bathurst Bay shown above). According to Australian hurricane scientist Jeffrey Callaghan, "From all reports the storm surge from the disastrous 5 March 1887 cyclone flooded almost all of Burketown (some 30km inland from the Gulf). A copy of a 1918 report to the Queensland Parliament from the Department of Harbours and Rivers Engineer refers to the sea rising to 5.5 metres above the highest spring tide level at the Albert River Heads. This level is about 8 metres (26.2 feet) above Australian Height Datum (AHD). The biggest measured surge in the Gulf of Carpentaria occurred on 30 March 1923, when a surge of 21.4 feet was recorded at a Groote Eylandt Mission".
Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal Storm Surge Records
The funnel-shape of the North Indian Ocean and shallow bathymetry act to focus some of the world's highest storm storms onto the low-lying area at the northen end of the Bay of Bengal. Thanks to the dense population of the region, 22 of the world's 30 deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in the Bay of Bengal. Although only 1% of all tropical cyclones that form each year strike Bangladesh, that nation has suffered 53% of all world fatalities due to tropical cyclones (Ali, 1999).
The highest storm surge from a Bay of Bengal cyclone is reputed to be the 44.6 foot (13.6 meter) storm surge (Shrestha, 1998) attributed to the Great Backerganj Cyclone of 1876. Banglapedia lists the surge from this cyclone at 40 feet (12.2 meters).
The highest storm surge in the past century from a Bay of Bengal cyclone occurred during the Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970, when a storm surge of 34.8 feet (10.6 meters) roared inland during one of the highest high tides of the year (Karim and Mimura, 2008; Shrestha, 1998). The death toll from the cyclone was the highest in human history, estimated at 300,000 - 550,000.
Figure 3. The Bhola Cyclone of November 11, 1970 in the Bay of Bengal, approaching Bangladesh. The 34.8 foot (10.6 meter) storm surge caused the highest tropical cyclone death toll in history, 300,000 - 550,000.
Western Pacific Typhoon Storm Surge Record
In the Western Pacific, where tropical cyclones are called typhoons, the world-record for the highest storm surge is 19.5 feet (5.94 meters), according to Fengshu and Xinian, 1989. This occurred on July 22, 1980 at Nandu Station, China, during Typhoon Joe. At the time, Typhoon Joe was a Category 1 storm with 80 - 90 mph winds and a pressure of 965 mb.
Ali, A. (1999), Climate change impacts and adaptation assessment in Bangladesh" (PDF File), Climate Research 12: 109-116, 1999.
Anonymous, 1899, The Outridge Report--The Pearling Disaster 1899: A Memorial", The Outridge Company, 1899
Karim, M.K., and N. Mimura, 2008, "Impacts of climate change and sea-level rise on cyclonic storm surge floods in Bangladesh", Global Environmental Change 18: 3, pp490-500, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.05.002.
Nott, J, N. Hayne, 2000: How high was the storm surge from Tropical Cyclone Mahina?", (PDF File) Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Autumn 2000.
Shrestha, M.L. (ed) (1998), "The impact of tropical cyclones on the coastal regions of SAARC countries and their influence in the region", SMRC N. SAARC Meteorological Research Centre, DHA, Bangladesh, October 1998, 329 pp.
Fengshu, L., and W. Xinian, 1989, "A Review of Storm-Surge Research in China", Natural Hazards 2: 17-29, 1989.
Whittingham, 1958, "The Bathurst Bay hurricane and associated storm surge", (PDF File) Australian Meteorological Magazine, No. 27, pp. 40-41. Scanned and put on-line courtesy of John McBride.
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