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World storm surge records

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:41 PM GMT on August 03, 2009

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 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 an email I received from 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 Carpenteria occurred on 30 March 1923, when a surge of 21.4 feet was recorded at a Groote Eylandt Mission".

So what is the world storm surge record if the Bathurst Bay cyclone does not qualify? Well, I haven't researched storms in the Indian Ocean or Pacific Typhoons yet, but it might be difficult to find any storm that beats Hurricane Katrina's 27.8 foot storm surge.

Nott, J, N. Hayne, 2000: How high was the storm surge from Tropical Cyclone Mahina?", Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Autumn 2000.

Anonymous, 1899, The Outridge Report--The Pearling Disaster 1899: A Memorial", The Outridge Company, 1899

Whittingham, 1958, "The Bathurst Bay hurricane and associated storm surge", Australian Meteorological Magazine, No. 27, pp. 40-41. Scanned and put on-line courtesy of John McBride.

I'll have an update on Tuesday, when the latest CSU seasonal hurricane forecast comes out at 11am EDT.
Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.