Cyclone Mahina

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Cyclone Mahina
Formed Unknown
Dissipated 10 March 1899 (1899-03-11)
Lowest pressure 880 hPa (mbar); 25.99 inHg
(Lowest recorded pressure[1])
Fatalities Over 300, possibly up to 410 (see casualties)
Areas affected Far North Queensland, Australia
Part of the Pre-1970 Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclone seasons

Cyclone Mahina was the deadliest cyclone in recorded Australian history. It struck Bathurst Bay, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, on 4 March 1899, and its winds and storm surge combined to kill more than 300 people.[2][3][4]

The World Meteorological Organisation is currently considering an application from Queensland scientists and researchers to have Mahina's official lowest pressure upgraded to 880 hectopascals (25.99 inHg). This would make it the most intense cyclone recorded to have hit the Australian mainland.[5]


Storm path of Cyclone Mahina, 1899

Tropical cyclone Mahina hit on 4 March 1899.[6] Mahina perhaps ranks among the most intense cyclones ever observed in the Southern Hemisphere and almost certainly as the most intense cyclone ever observed off the Eastern states of Australia in recorded history. Clement Lindley Wragge, Government Meteorologist for Queensland pioneered naming of such storms and gave this storm its name, Mahina.

Such storms occur extremely rarely. Scientists identified two other category-4 or 5 super-cyclones in the first half of the 19th century from their effects on the Great Barrier Reef and the Gulf of Carpentaria. This same research shows that on average, such super-cyclones occur in the region only once every two or three centuries.[7]

A pearling fleet, based at Thursday Island, Queensland, anchored in or near the bay before the storm. Within an hour, the storm drove much of the fleet ashore or onto the Great Barrier Reef; other vessels sank at their anchorages. Four schooners and the manned Channel Rock lightship were lost. A further two schooners were wrecked but later re-floated. The fleets lost 54 luggers, and a further 12 were wrecked but re-floated. People later rescued more than 30 survivors of the wrecked vessels from the shore; however, the storm killed more than 400 people, mostly non-European immigrant crew members.[8][9] a depiction of the Crest of the Wave in the storm can be seen here.

A storm surge, reportedly 13 metres (43 ft), swept across Princess Charlotte Bay and then inland about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi), destroying anything left of the Bathurst Bay pearling fleet and the settlement.

An eyewitness, constable J. M. Kenny, reported that a 48-foot (15 m) storm surge swept over their camp at Barrow Point atop a 40-foot (12 m)-high ridge and reached 3 miles (4.8 km) inland, the largest storm surge ever recorded. However, reviewing the evidence for this surge, some scientists [10] based on the 914-hectopascal (13.26 psi) central pressure, modeled a surge should only be 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) to 3 metres (9.8 ft) in height. They also surveyed the area, seeking wave-cut escarpments and deposits characteristic of storm events but found none higher than 5 metres (16 ft). Of the 48-foot (15 m) surge, they suggest an incorrectly cited ground level or an involvement of freshwater (rain) flooding. A subsequent study considers this conclusion possibly premature and questions the barometer reading as considered unreliable and as not representative of the lowest pressure. This subsequent study also examined new evidence of exceptionally high storm surge and inundation.[11]

The cyclone continued southwest over Cape York Peninsula, emerging over the Gulf of Carpentaria before doubling back and dissipating on 10 March.[12]


The exact number of casualties is not known as many deaths were not recorded. Estimates range between 307 and 410.[6]

In September 1899, the Queensland Marine Department published a list of 247 known fatalities. The Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has 283 registered deaths attributed to the cyclone, including 250 on pearling ships. One of the pearling fleet owners estimated another 30 people not officially registered as crew were killed and not reported to the Cooktown Registrar.[13]

Around 100 Indigenous Australians were killed[14] but not recorded as Indigenous people were not counted as part of the population at the time. They had tried to help shipwrecked men, but the back surge caught them and swept them into the sea. Only eight Indigenous people were recorded amongst the casualties, all of whom died on shore.[13]

The Queensland Historical Atlas reports the death toll as "307 pearl divers and sailors and an unreported number of Aborigines".[15]


People found thousands of fish and some sharks and dolphins several kilometres (miles) inland, and the storm embedded rocks in trees. On Flinders Island (Queensland), people found dolphins on the 15.2-metre (50 ft) cliffs; however, this finding need not indicate a surge of this height;[10] on this exposed site, wave run-up readily can produce these results even within the more modest calculated surge.

At Cape Melville, survivors erected a memorial stone to "The Pearlers" lost to the cyclone, naming 11 Europeans but only citing "over 300 coloured men" for the other seamen.[16] The Anglican church on Thursday Island, Queensland, also commemorates this disaster.

Barometic pressures[edit]

Contemporary reports vary considerably in the reported lowest barometric pressures. The pressure recorded on the schooner Olive reasonably consistently show her lowest pressure recorded: 29.60 inches of mercury (100.2 kPa) to 29.10 inches of mercury (98.5 kPa) [17] or between 29.00 inches of mercury (98.2 kPa) and 29.10 inches of mercury (98.5 kPa).[18] In a further variant, "during the lull in the hurricane, the barometer on the Olive recorded" 29.70 inches of mercury (100.6 kPa) to 29.10 inches of mercury (98.5 kPa).[19]

Most sources record the schooner Crest of the Wave observation as 27 inches of mercury (91 kPa)[20][21][22] More modern reports of an 18 inches of mercury (61 kPa) observation on a vessel in the eye of Mahina seemingly lack relationship to contemporary records.[23]

One author [8] accepted the 29.1 inches of mercury (99 kPa) report from the Olive and the 27 inches of mercury (91 kPa) report from the Crest of the Wave, seemingly unaware of the discrepant reports. He estimated the track of the cyclone from the damage reports, placing it directly over the position of the Crest of the Wave. The Olive to the north missed the centre. The separation between these schooners explains the difference between their respective pressure measurements. He calculates the centre pressure, standardised for temperature, as 914 hectopascals (13.26 psi).[8]

A study in 2014 found the lowest pressure perhaps around 880 hectopascals (12.8 psi), based upon modeling of meteorological variables needed to induce the potentially world-record-setting surge height of 13 metres (43 ft). This surge closely matches new evidence on storm depositions and accounts actually reported to two other captains and in a letter to his parents a reading of 26 inches of mercury (880 hPa). This study considers the apparently third-hand report of 27 inches of mercury (910 hPa) a not necessarily reliable measurement perhaps made five hours prior to passage of the eye.[11]

In comparison, the tiny Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin in 1974 with a central pressure of 950 hectopascals (13.8 psi). Barometric pressure this low at mean sea level also likely caused cyclone Mahina to create such an intense, phenomenal, claimed world-record storm surge not thereafter known.

Popular culture[edit]

In 2008, Ian Townsend published "The Devil's Eye: a novel" as a historical fiction novel based on Cyclone Mahina. The novel was developed as part of his research fellowship at the State Library of Queensland.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nott, Jonathon; Hayne, Matthew (12 June 2000). "How high was the storm surge from Tropical Cyclone Mahina?". Australian Journal of Emergency Management. Emergency Management Australia (Autumn 2000): 11–13. 
  2. ^ Kerr, Jack (26 December 2014). "Tropical Cyclone Mahina: Bid to have deadly March 1899 weather event upgraded in record books". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "Natural Disasters". Australia's cultural portal. Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 11 February 2009. 
  4. ^ "Australia's worst natural disasters". SBS World News Australia. Retrieved 11 February 2009. 
  5. ^ "Bid to have deadly Tropical Cyclone Mahina upgraded in record books". 26 December 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2017. 
  6. ^ a b "Tropical Cyclones in Queensland". Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  7. ^ *Michael Allaby, Richard Garratt, Hurricanes, page 98, Infobase Publishing, 2003 ISBN 0816047952.
  8. ^ a b c Whittingham, H. E. 1958, The Bathurst Bay Hurricane and associated storm surge. Australian Meteorological Magazine 23: 14-36. Available on line at
  9. ^ Pixley, N S, Pearlers of North Australia: the romantic story of the diving fleets. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 9(3): 9-29. Available online at
  10. ^ a b Jonathan Nott and Matthew Hayne (2000). "How high was the storm surge from Tropical Cyclone Mahina? North Queensland, 1899" (PDF). Emergency Management Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 June 2008. Retrieved 11 August 2008. 
  11. ^ a b Nott, Jonathan; C. Green; I. Townsend; J. Callaghan (2014). "The World Record Storm Surge and the Most Intense Southern Hemisphere Tropical Cyclone: New Evidence and Modeling". Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 95 (5): 757–65. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00233.1. 
  12. ^ Bathurst Bay, Qld: Cyclone (incl Storm Surge) Archived 16 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Emergency Management Australia Disasters Database. Accessed 29 December 2008.
  13. ^ a b Ian Townsend (7 November 2015). "A Queensland disaster uncovered - Cyclone Mahina". BDM Family History Journal. Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. 7: 3. 
  14. ^ Tropical Cyclones: Hazard Modelling and Risk Assessment, GeoscienceAustralia Report no. 68013, 2006
  15. ^ "Tropical cyclones". University of Queensland and Queensland Museum. 27 October 2010. 
  16. ^ Outridge Monument
  17. ^ "QUEENSLAND". The Advertiser. South Australia. 14 March 1899. p. 5. Retrieved 14 May 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  18. ^ "THE LATE HURRICANE". The Brisbane Courier. LV, (12,845). Queensland, Australia. 14 March 1899. p. 5. Retrieved 14 May 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  19. ^ "THE HURRICANE IN THE NORTH". Kalgoorlie Western Argus. V, (225). Western Australia. 16 March 1899. p. 22. Retrieved 14 May 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  20. ^ The Queensland Hurricane. The Sydney Morning Herald, p5 13 March 1899. on line at
  21. ^ The Queensland Hurricane. South Australian Register, p6, 14 March 1899. Available on line at
  22. ^ Hurricane in the North. The Brisbane Courier, p8, 18 March 1899. Available on line at
  23. ^ The Cairns Post 20 November 2008, p17.
  24. ^ "Out of the Port Lecture: Cyclone Mahina". John Oxley Library blog. 21 October 2011. Archived from the original on 23 October 2017. Retrieved 23 October 2017. 

 Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]