A fierce storm on Macquarie Island
A personal account
Written 11 June 2004 by J. Sheridan, Meteorological Observer, Macquarie Island 2004
May 31st 2004 has quite a reputation on Macquarie Island. Last year in 2003, a deep low pressure system, moving south of the island caused a massive storm with huge seas and destructive winds. The storm lashed the island, destroying one building and damaging several others, as well as severely eroding the main beach.
You can imagine our surprise when a similar intense low pressure system was forecast to cross south of the island exactly one year later in 2004. In fact the Met personnel on station had some difficulty convincing everybody else that the forecast was genuine. The Met Bureau Hobart Regional Office forecast winds of 50 to 60 knots, with possible gusts of up to 100 knots and a storm surge of 11 m above the datum.
The morning dawned with slight rain and drizzle. The wind at 6 am was blowing a fresh 18 knots (33 km/h), which gradually increased to 30 knots (56 km/h) by 9 am. By this time the station was a hive of activity as expeditioners prepared for the onslaught. The JCB and tractor were put to work. Among other things, cage pallets were moved from the exposed western side of the station to behind the main multi-purpose building, where they would be protected from the wind. People were scouring the station picking up lose debris and rubbish which could later rapidly transform into unidentified flying missiles, causing either further destruction or adding to our already polluted oceans. Finally, after a good few hours work, everything which could possibly be blown to New Zealand was secured.
I also began to ponder how on earth I was going to launch a 500 gm hydrogen filled balloon with attached radiosonde that evening. I wandered into the balloon shed to discover that one of the western doors was bowing inwards in an alarming fashion, having disconnected its upper latch. In last year's storm these doors were blown off! Following a concerned phone call from me, the meteorological technician and carpenter arrived pronto and began to assess the situation. The electrician arrived soon after. Together they managed to re-secure the latch, but the carpenter confided in me that he didn't expect the doors to survive the night.
At 5 pm the winds briefly peaked at hurricane force averaging 65 knots (120 km/hr). This is not to be confused with an actual hurricane, which is a tropical cyclone. However, we experienced wind speeds equivalent to those of a less intense tropical cyclone (Category 1 or 2).
By 6 pm the winds were averaging 61 knots (113 km/hr) when I headed out to the enclosure to undertake a weather observation.
'Extremely windy' isn't considered 'weather' (although gale force winds are recorded as a 'weather phenomena'). So as it wasn't actually raining, drizzling or snowing and there wasn't even any mist. I had to end up reporting 'raised sand' as the weather. The Bureau of Meteorology has 99 different weather codes and they are listed in importance from 1 (cloud decreasing) to 99 (heavy thunderstorm with hail). 'Raised sand' is code number 7 and would usually be reported in inland arid Australia, where dust-storms occur. However, this particular night on Macquarie Island, the course black beach sand was certainly blowing above eye level and it stung when contacting bare skin.
I decided to brave the harsh weather and head up to the mess shortly after 6 pm for some dinner (150 m away). At this point in time there were no waves washing over The Isthmus, although it certainly wasn't easy walking in a straight line. Following a good feed, I returned to the office to discover a maximum wind gust of 78 knots (144 km/h) had been recorded. Nevertheless, the storm of 2003 proved much wilder with an average wind speed of 75 knots (139 km/h) and a maximum wind gust of 92 knots (170 km/h).
By the 9 pm observation, sand was still blowing fiercely and as the balloon shed doors were still intact, I filled the balloon in preparation for the 9.15 pm launch. However, the flight operating computer system decided to fail and after 50 frustrating minutes trying to get it working, I gave up.
I walked back up to the living quarters shortly after 11 pm. Waves were washing over The Isthmus which links the accommodation dwellings and mess to the outer science buildings and mechanical workshop.
Large clumps of seaweed were scattered everywhere and many elephant seals had deserted the ocean for this seemingly dry land (I almost tripped over one in the darkness as I made my way up to the helipad to look at the ocean). A large wave suddenly caught me by surprise, splashing over the top of my gumboots and drenched my socks. At this time, most of the station appeared to be asleep and oblivious to the brutal force nature was unleashing.
I watched a large wave crash over the central light structure along the way and expected it to short-out. Two keen expeditioners were out with their cameras despite the howling winds and driving sea-spray. I watched this 'once in a lifetime' opportunity for about 30 minutes then headed off to bed. I did have the faint thought that in the morning, there may be north and south Macquarie Island if the swell managed to cut entirely through The Isthmus.
By morning the damage was clear. All the buildings had managed to survive unscathed with the exception of Cumpston's VIP Cottage. Its bathroom window blown out but was recovered in one piece. The main beach on the eastern side was extensively eroded, large chunks had been washed out to sea exposing the water pipe and cables.
For information on the 2003 storm.