Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

High frequency of ‘super-cyclones’ along the Great Barrier Reef over the past 5,000 years


Understanding long-term variability in the occurrence of tropical cyclones that are of extreme intensity is important for determining their role in ecological disturbances1,2,3,4,5, for predicting present and future community vulnerability and economic loss6 and for assessing whether changes in the variability of such cyclones are induced by climate change7. Our ability to accurately make these assessments has been limited by the short (less than 100 years) instrumented record of cyclone intensity. Here we determine the intensity of prehistoric tropical cyclones over the past 5,000 years from ridges of detrital coral and shell deposited above highest tide and terraces that have been eroded into coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits. These features occur along 1,500 km of the Great Barrier Reef and also the Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. We infer that the deposits were formed by storms with recurrence intervals of two to three centuries8,9,10,11, and we show that the cyclones responsible must have been of extreme intensity (central pressures less than 920 hPa). Our estimate of the frequency of such ‘super-cyclones’ is an order of magnitude higher than that previously estimated (which was once every several millennia12,13,14), and is sufficiently high to suggest that the character of rainforests and coral reef communities were probably shaped by these events.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Study sites and storm deposit data.
Figure 2: Central pressures (mean, 1σ, 2σ) of cyclones responsible for building ridges and eroding terraces at study sites.


  1. Connell, J. Diversity in tropical rainforests and coral reefs. Science 199, 1302–1310 (1978).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Sousa, W. The role of disturbance in natural communities. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 15, 353–391 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Tanner, J. et al. The role of history in community dynamics: A modelling approach. Ecology 77, 108–117 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Hughes, T. & Connell, J. Multiple stressors on coral reefs: A long-term perspective. Limnol. Oceanogr. 44, 932–940 (1999).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Connell, J. et al. A 30 year study of coral abundance, recruitment and disturbance at several scales in space and time. Ecol. Monogr. 67, 461–488 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Oliver, J. & Britton, N. Natural Hazards and Reinsurance (Cumberland College Health Sciences, Sydney, Australia, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Walsh, K. et al. Climate Change in Queensland under Enhanced Greenhouse Conditions (Third annual report 1999–2000, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria, Australia, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Chappell, J. et al. Holocene palaeo-environmental changes, central to north Great Barrier Reef inner zone. BMR J. Aust. Geol. Geophys. 8, 223–235 (1983).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Chivas, A. et al. Radiocarbon evidence for the timing and rate of island development, beach rock formation and phosphatization at Lady Elliot Island, Queensland, Australia. Mar. Geol. 69, 273–287 (1986).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hayne, M. & Chappell, J. Cyclone frequency during the last 5,000 yrs from Curacoa Island, Queensland. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 168, 201–219 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hayne, M. & Chappell, J. A record of cyclone frequency from Princess Charlotte Bay, Nth Qld, Australia. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. (in the press).

  12. Lourensz, H. Tropical cyclones in the Australian region, July 1909 to June 1980. (Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne, 1981).

  13. Harper, B. Storm Tide Threat in Queensland: History, Prediction and Relative Risks (Technical report 10, Queensland Department of Environment & Heritage, Brisbane, 1998).

    Google Scholar 

  14. McInnes, K. et al. Cyclones Impacts on Tourism, Cairns, Nth Queensland (CSIRO Report, CSIRO Tourism, Melbourne, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hubbell, S. et al. Light gap disturbances, recruitment limitation, and tree diversity in a neotropical rainforest. Science 283, 554–557 (1999).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Bryant, E. Natural Hazards (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1991).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Henderson-Sellers, A. et al. Tropical cyclones and global climate change; a post IPCC assessment. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 79, 19–38 (1998).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Blumenstock, D. Typhoon effects at Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Nature 182, 1267–1269 (1958).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Maragos, J. et al. Tropical cyclone creates a new land formation on Funafuti Atoll. Science 181, 1161–1164 (1973).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Fitchett, K. Physical effects of Hurricane Bebe upon Funafete Atoll, Tuvalu. Aust. Geographer 18, 1–7 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Scoffin, T. The geological effects of hurricanes on coral reefs and the interpretation of storm deposits. Coral Reefs 12, 203–221 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Chappell, J. & Grindrod, J. in Coastal Geomorphology in Australia (ed. Thom, B.) 197–231 (Academic, Sydney, 1984).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Everham, E. & Brokaw, N. Forest damage and recovery from catastrophic wind. Bot. Rev. 62, 113–184 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hughes, T. Community structure and diversity of coral reefs: The role of history. Ecology 7, 275–279 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lirman, D. & Fong, P. Susceptibility of coral communities to storm intensity, duration and frequency. Proc. 8th Int. Coral Reef Symp. (eds Lessios, H. & MacIntire, I.) Vol. 1, 561–566 (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Balboa, Panama, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Potts, D. C. et al. Dominance of a coral community by the genus Porites. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 23, 79–84 (1985).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Hubbert, G. & McInnes, K. A storm surge inundation model for coastal planning and impact studies. J. Coast. Res. 15, 168–185 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Sanderson, B. et al. A Tropical Cyclone Maximum Envelope of Waters (MEOW) Technique (Applied Mathematics Report 95/28, Department of Mathematics, Monash Univ. Clayton, Victoria, Australia, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  29. US Army Corps of Engineers Shore Protection Manual (US Army Coastal Engineering Research Centre, Washington, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank J. Wright, J. Tanner and H. Marsh for comments on the manuscript; T. Hughes, J. Chappell, G. Hubbert and S. Oliver for discussions on the topic; and J. H. Choat and R. Pearson for early encouragement of this project. M.H. publishes with the permission of the Chief Executive Officer of AGSO.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan Nott.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nott, J., Hayne, M. High frequency of ‘super-cyclones’ along the Great Barrier Reef over the past 5,000 years. Nature 413, 508–512 (2001).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing