Tropical Cyclone Ului (20P) Expected to Make Landfall in Queensland, Australia14.6S 152.5E
Severe Tropical Cyclone Ului (20P) is one of the fastest intensifying tropical cyclones on record, strengthening from a tropical storm to a Category 5 equivalent cyclone within a 24 hour span.
Between 13 and 14 March, Cyclone Ului underwent an unusually explosive phase of rapid intensification. During a 24 hour span, the system intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 equivalent cyclone, tying Hurricane Wilma in 2005 for the fastest intensification of a system from tropical storm to Category 5.
According to the JTWC, maximum sustained winds increased from 100 km/h (65 mph) to 260 km/h (160 mph). They also estimated that the storm’s minimal central pressure had decreased from 982 mbar (hPa) to 918 mbar (hPa), a drop of 64 mbar (hPa), during this span.
Ului was first identified by the Fiji Meteorological Service (FMS) late on 9 March roughly 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Hiw Island, Vanuatu. At this time, the system was classified as Tropical Disturbance 13F.
Early the following day, the system became sufficiently organized for the FMS to upgrade the disturbance to a tropical depression. Several hours later, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) also began monitoring the system. By this time, deep convection had developed around a low-level circulation and banding features had formed. A slow westward movement was expected as the depression was situated north of a subtropical ridge.
On 12 March, 13F was upgraded to Tropical Cyclone Ului. By early on 13 March, it was a category 2 cyclone. Later that day, Ului strengthened into a category 3, making it a severe tropical cyclone. The storm continued to strengthen throughout the day and that night it became a category 5.
Ului became the first category 5 South Pacific cyclone since Severe Tropical Cyclone Percy in February of 2005 but weakened to category 4 about the time it crossed the 160°E meridian. The system was predicted to restrengthen back into a category 5 as it moved away from an upper level low and Severe Tropical Cyclone Tomas, however 20P remained as a category 4 and had weakened to a category 3 system in the early hours of 18 March but is expected to restrengthen.
As a Category 5 cyclone, Ului passed through the southern Solomon Islands, causing severe damage on the islands of Rennell, Guadalcanal as well as Bellona province. Large swells produced by the storm washed away several homes along coastal areas. Flooding was also reported on several islands; however, officials confirmed that no fatalities resulted from the storm.
Maximum winds on the affected islands reached 120 km/h (75 km/h). On Rennell Island, initial reports stated that at least ten homes had been severely damaged or destroyed in several villages. Light to moderate damage was sustained on Makira and Guadalcanal, with at least two homes sustaining damage.
Unconfirmed reports of a large wave inundating several villages, washing away homes and overturning large boulders came from east Makira around 4:00 pm local time. Another village on the western side of Makira was reportedly inundated roughly five hours later. Later damage assessments made on Makira Island confirmed at least 13 homes were destroyed and several more were damaged. The most severe damage took place in Woau village where ten homes were destroyed.
After Cyclone Ului passed through the Solomon Islands, officials in Queensland, Australia began warning residents about the possibility of the storm making landfall in the region. Large swells produced by the system prompted lifeguards to close large areas of public beaches. These swells were anticipated to be the largest experienced along the Queensland coastline in the past decade and emergency management officials warned residents living along coastal areas that the waves would likely inundate low-lying regions.
On 18 March, new forecasts of the future track of Ului indicated that it would make landfall in Queensland. As a result, officials evacuated roughly 300 people from the islands of Heron and Lady Elliot, situated about 1,000 km (620 mi) off the Australian mainland. Residents along the Sunshine Coast were advised to prepare their homes for a possible Category 4 cyclone and stock up on non-perishable foods.
Later on 18 March, the Bureau of Meteorology is expecting that the cyclone will cross or near the Queensland coast, between Cardwell and Mackay, on 21 March as a category 3 cyclone. Several ports along the Queensland coastline were shut down for several days as large waves impacted the region. Transportation of coal and other raw materials was halted in these areas as well.