The Category 3 cyclone hit the town of Cooktown at around 9 p.m. Australian time, or 7 a.m. in the Eastern United States, with winds of up to 115 miles per hour, according to media reports on Friday. The cyclone was downgraded to a category three from earlier reports that it would reach the maximum strength of five.
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Coastal residents in Northern Australia, including the 2,300-person Cooktown and nearby Aboriginal communities, were specifically warned of a “dangerous storm tide” overnight and on Saturday morning.
“The sea is likely to rise steadily up to a level which will be significantly above the normal tide, with damaging waves, strong currents and flooding of low-lying areas extending some way inland,” The Australia Bureau of Meteorology said. “People living in areas likely to be affected by this flooding should take measures to protect their property as much as possible and be prepared to follow instructions regarding evacuation of the area if advised to do so by the authorities.”
Destructive winds and rains may also extend to the more populated areas of Australia such as Cairns (a population of 30,000) and Innisfail (7,876), and to further inland communities, the Bureau said, though recent updates for Cairnes say the storm is losing strength as it hits land.
Despite the name, tropical cyclones are not tornadoes — they are the same as hurricanes or typhoons. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, we use the term “hurricane,” while “typhoon” is used in the Northwest Pacific and “cyclone” is used in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Cyclones are not uncommon in Australia either. According to the country’s Meteorology Bureau, the season typically runs from November through April, with the most destructive storms likely to occur in March and April. In fact, as the Weather Channel notes, the part of Australia that is currently being hit by Cyclone Ita is thought to hold the world record for highest storm surge, from the 1899 Bathurst Bay Cyclone, a Category 5.
Interpreting climate change’s effect on the storm will likely be difficult. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has indicated that it does not yet have strong evidence to suggest notable increases in the number of global tropical cyclones or hurricanes due to human-caused global warming. There has been increasing evidence, though, that rising sea levels are upping the potential destruction of storm surges, which would make tropical storms like Ita more dangerous.
Whether climate change is proven to be a factor in the storm’s destructiveness or not, it’s unlikely the Australian government would, in its current state, do much about it — despite the fact that the country is one of the most vulnerable to climate change’s detrimental effects. According to the IPCC, climate change will increase the likelihood of deaths in Australia from heat stress and bushfires, and may place more than 250,000 Australian homes at risk from rising sea levels.
Before Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister of Australia last September, the country was known as a leader in the climate fight, passing a national carbon tax, striving for ambitious greenhouse gas reductions targets, investing heavily in renewable energy, and valuing the input of leading climate scientists. Since then, though, Abbott and has rolled back his government’s climate and environment initiatives as much as possible, and switched to a focus on growing the economy through Australia’s powerful fossil fuel industry.