[139] Whitsundays – Resilience made in Heaven

This blog is part of the series ‘What the resilience of the Whitsundays can teach the world at the beginning of the hurricane season.’

On which I published a long-read in Dutch as well.

There is life, I think. Life in the middle of dead. Fresh greenery growing on the broken trunks, new coral growing on the broken reef. There is life, and these broken structures might have saved many lives as well.

I’m walking on the astonishing white sand of White heaven beach. Yet, while all eyes are on the marvellous blue ocean, and the pearly white sand, mines are focused on the other side of this piece of heaven: the rainforest and the mangroves.

Het Woud op de frontlinie van de kust op Whiteheaven Beach in Whitsundays

Whereas most of them are broken down, cracked trunks, broken breaches and even some uprooted ones, fresh greenery spreads out over them. Where life has been taken, new life is growing. The lush leaves start covering up the grey mass of broken trees. As a soft blanket they cover respectful what once had been. A funeral of nature, where new-borns are filling in the gap.

Resilience of the Whitsundays

The Whitsundays are a paradise of nature, marvellous, astonishing, and precious. Yet, only two years ago cyclone Debbie turned the entire region into an inferno. With wind speeds up to 265 km per hour on some islands; trees, mangroves and coral were smashed to death. Hotels, houses, roads, and boats were destroyed; while fish and tourist had to flee or shelter. The scenery must have been devastating.

Yet, only two years later, nature shows its strength again. Not by weeping it all out, but by regrowth. The resilience of the Whitsundays is fascinating. Moreover, at the start of the hurricane / cyclone season, it can teach the world some wise lessons.

In the next blog posts, I’ll dive into detail in the resilience of the Whitsundays and how it can help the world in coping with tropical storms. Especially since they are about to increase in strength, in frequency, and even in territory due to the warming of the oceans and the planet.

So, hop on, explore the Whitsundays, and explore how the world could be saved by reef, rainforest and mangroves, in the next posts. But first, the story of cyclone Debbie.

Een laatste slachtoffer van orkaan Debbie op de Whitsundays

Here comes Debbie

In March 2017, the East Coast of Australia in Queensland was hit by the Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie. Debbie was stronger than Nathan in 2015, and costlier than Yasi in 2011.

Debbie came at land near the town of Airlie Beach after having rushed a couple of days over the Whitsunday islands, where it had reached wind speeds up to 165 km/h (105mph) – yet when it reached land in Airlie Beach wind had ‘dropped’ to 150 km/h (90mph).

Only a couple of days later the storm faded out over land, yet it caused about 3.5 billion AUD (2.67 billion USD) of damage, and took 14 lives with it, primarily caused by extreme flooding. For instance, in New South Wales, 17,000 people were isolated by flood water, while 30,000 were affected by evacuation orders. Rainfall was registered with peaks at 92mm in one hour in Greenmount and Dumbleton Rocks on the Pioneer River.

On the Whitsundays Islands Debbie caused extreme damage with winds reaching up to 191 km/h (119 mph) and gusts up to 263 km/h (163mph) on Hamilton Island, where wind exceeded 100km/h (62mph) for more than 24 hours. Roofs were lifted from houses; trees were uprooted, power blacked out, and waterways flooded. For instance, 300 people got stock on Daydream Island, of which evacuation became impossible since the jetty was destroyed as well. Dams overflowed, highways were submerged, and railways flooded, while farmers saw their harvest collapsing.

Nieuw groen groeit op de afgeknakte boomstammen op Whiteheaven Beach in the Whitsundays

As a result, Debbie became the deadliest cyclone in Australia since its ancestor Fifi hit the continent in 1991. Moreover, the cyclone destroyed not only man-made constructions, but natural ones as well. Rainforest, reef and mangroves had absorbed huge parts of the storm, paying with their lives.

Yet, 2 years later, recovery can be seen. Fresh greenery is growing at the bottom of, and in between of the broken trunks. At the same time, news coral has started growing on the broken and died-off old coral structures.

This resilience is not only admirable, it is exemplary. In a world where cyclones will increase both in severity and in number, as in territory, due to climate change, these natural features – reef, rainforest and mangroves – might be the best protection we can get. In addition, they do not only protect against storms, and flooding, but against rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increasing waves and tsunamis as well.

More to come

Cyclones are not an exclusive event for Australia, let alone for the Great Barrier Reef. Yet, the trend is increasing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found a warming climate is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, resulting in changing rainfall patterns, changing cyclone patterns, changing wind and wave patterns, and all causing extensive damage to corals, reefs, and its surroundings.

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