Cyclone Debbie is nearing landfall along the Queensland coast, threatening to cause significant destruction in iconic tourist destinations like the Whitsunday Islands. The storm will likely be the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the country since Cyclone Yasi hit in 2011. That storm caused $3.6 billion in damage.
As of 11 a.m. ET, Cyclone Debbie had maximum sustained winds of 175 kilometers per hour, or 108 miles per hour, with gusts to 155 kilometers per hour. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecast the storm to continue to intensify as it approaches the coast, with the center crossing the coast between Ayr and Cape Hillsborough on Tuesday morning, local time. Strong winds and heavy rain will be felt all the way north to the city of Townsville, the BOM warned.
The storm is lashing the tourist destination of the Whitsunday Islands with winds of at least 100 miles per hour, high waves and storm surge flooding.
The BOM is also warning of the potential for inland flooding as the storm moves west and weakens. Some rainfall totals of greater than 500 millimeters, or about 20 inches, are possible, the BOM says.
The storm is occurring during a historically inactive Southern Hemisphere tropical storm season, with just 4 cyclones reaching hurricane intensity so far during the 2016-17 Southern Hemisphere storm season. This is the fewest on record to date, according to Colorado State University researcher Philip Klotzbach.
Tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere are the same type of storm as hurricanes and typhoons, but they are simply known by a different name. (They also spin the other way compared to a hurricane striking the U.S., in the clockwise direction.)
Australia ranks its tropical cyclones differently than how the U.S. measures hurricane intensity. For example, in Australia, the mean wind speed is defined over a period of 10 minutes, whereas the U.S. uses a 1-minute average. This is why the Australian cyclone intensity scale doesn’t exactly match up to the Atlantic hurricane intensity scale.
A Category 4 cyclone in Australia is equivalent to a Category 2 or 3 storm in the U.S.
Regardless of this discrepancy, Cyclone Debbie is capable of causing significant structural damage, widespread flooding and power outages as well as other lasting damage.
One benefit of the storm could be how it stirs up cooler ocean waters from below, potentially relieving temperature stress on parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which is suffering from an unprecedented 3-year stretch of coral bleaching. However, the hardest-hit parts of the reef are located farther north of where the storm has moved.