A Record Nearly Lost in the Wind

February 4, 2010 · 0 comments

A lot of fanfare surrounded the announcement in January (including our post here) that Barrow Island, a Brooklyn-size spot of land 31 miles off Australia’s northwest coast, now holds the record for the strongest recorded surface wind gust. The new record–a howling 253 mph (408 kph) during the passage of Tropical Cyclone Olivia on April 10, 1996–seemed worthy of instant fame. So, like many weather enthusiasts, we wondered why it took more than a decade for this immense wind to be recognized. The answer seems as amazing as the wind gust.

“There isn’t anything sinister about the 14 years delay in the TC Olivia wind record,” writes Randy Cerveny, of Arizona State University, in e-mail correspondence. Cerveny is a member of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) panel that scrutinized and accepted the gust as a new wind record. “The basic truth is, unfortunately, the record was simply overlooked.”

Cerveny, a professor of climate studies at Arizona State University, explains that the high wind gusts—there were five—were measured on instrumentation owned by the private consulting company RPS MetOcean. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was notified about the gusts, but considered them suspect since they were extraordinarily high for a 145 mph tropical cyclone, and because the accuracy of the equipment used to measure the gusts was unknown. Meteorologists at RPS MetOcean coauthored a paper on TC Olivia in 1999 and presented their findings at the small Offshore Technology Conference in Houston that year. A companion presentation explained the physical mechanism that likely generated the extreme gusts as a mesovortex in Olivia’s well-formed eyewall. But, then, the observations “fell through the research cracks,” Cerveny stated.

The panel of scientists charged with determining global weather and climate extremes as part of the WMO’s Commission for Climatology (CCl) only began looking into the TC Olivia wind gusts after completing an evaluation of the “new” record tropical cyclone wind gust of 211 mph measured during 2008’s Hurricane Gustav in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. The panel reviewed numerous exceptional wind gusts recorded in Olivia on Barrow Island and concluded that five peak gusts, ranging from 186 mph to the peak of 253 mph were indeed accurate. The other gusts measured 229 mph, 233 mph, and 215 mph, lending credibility to the record wind. So, not only did Olivia usurp Mt. Washington’s record surface wind, but it also eclipsed the just-recognized maximum wind gust in a tropical cyclone that Gustav produced.

As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground noted in his online blog, Olivia was an intense tropical cyclone with gusts that crossed the 200 mph threshold of an EF-5 tornado, making them capable of causing catastrophic damage. Indeed, Olivia significantly damaged the oil and gas facilities on Barrow Island and nearby land areas in the region, and did extensive damage to homes inland in Mardie and Pannawonica in Western Australia.