Could we predict future cyclone paths by looking at tracks from the past 50 years?

Tropical cyclones are hard to predict – that’s one of the things that makes them so dangerous.

Once formed, their movement can be very erratic.

A research team at Griffith University in Brisbane is trying to discern the behaviour of cyclones better, by examining five decades of historic cyclone tracks around Queensland.

The Bureau of Meteorology has a resource where you can view historic cyclone tracks, going back to 1970.

But these records aren’t perfect for analysing and predicting cyclones in more detail.

Screenshot of bureau of meteorology's cyclone tracker, showing paths of cyclones across australia
The Bureau of Meteorology’s cyclone tracker, showing the 2010-2011 season. Cyclone Yasi, the huge Category 5 cyclone that battered the coast in early 2011, is shown in red.

“There are constraints in terms of the evolving satellite technology and wind speed measurement that makes using historical track data a problem,” says John Miller, a PhD candidate at Griffith and lead author on a paper describing the research, published in Natural Hazards.

Instead, the researchers calculated cyclone power, track curvature (the wiggliness of the track) and location using an algorithm to reduce the effect of faulty records.

With this analysis, the researchers could divide the cyclones into three different “clusters”.

Cluster 1 cyclones started in the southeasterly part of the Coral Sea and headed southeast, occasionally hitting land in southeast Queensland.

Cluster 2 cyclones generally formed closer to the coast in the Coral Sea and moved east to west, sometimes making landfall in Queensland.

Cluster 3 cyclones started partly in the Coral Sea, but mostly west over the Gulf of Carpentaria, with cyclones usually moving west-southwest and hitting land. These cyclones could travel long distances over land.

Map of australia with cyclone paths marked out on northeast coast
Tropical cylone tracks with first moments, and different clusters, marked. Credit: Miller et al., 2023, Natural Hazards,

“A previous study into why that could have been happening suggested that they regained energy from the moisture in the soil, over northwest of Australia, and then they had that energy then to propagate long distances,” says Miller.

While cyclones are probably becoming less frequent as the climate warms, they may also be getting more intense when they do form – and coming into contact with more people.

“There’s still a little bit of uncertainty around tropical cyclone trends, although it seems that some recent studies have indicated decreasing frequencies of tropical cyclones both in Australia and globally,” says Miller.

In this analysis, while cyclone frequency decreased overall, Cluster 1 cyclones are the only group with a marked drop.

But, points out Miller, these cyclones are also the most likely to go close to the highly populated southeast Queensland.

Next, the researchers are aiming to see what’s driving cyclone behaviour – including climatic changes. After that, they’ll be investigating how the cyclones change waves and swell.

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