Mapping Australia’s Natural Disasters: Space and Time

Just outside Tully #TCYasi on Twitpic

Just one image from the Tully area after Cyclone Yasi hit. Source: cycloneupdate on Twitpic.

Yet another natural disaster is unfolding in Queensland with tropical cyclone Yasi crossing the coast of Far North Queensland.  There was not much sleep in our household on Wednesday night as we have family members who live right at the heart of the destructive forces of the cyclone.  I resumed this post at around 1 am Thursday morning.  Blogging while keeping an eye on Twitter and regular media is the best way of dealing with the anxiety.

We had a phone call from our family near Tully at the height of the cyclone just after midnight.  They asked when the eye of the cyclone would hit.  Already they had lost some windows, had to nail a board over the door to stop it from opening and then a tree fell on their house.  They had no electricity and little idea of when it was all going to end.  Their house was swaying in the ferocious winds.

We turned to the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar image and map for the information that they needed.  Maps are indispensable when dealing with a natural disaster.  It is hard to understand the extent of the recent natural disasters in Australia without maps.  Maps record the area or space, that has been affected by the disaster.  Floods in Australia have been mapped since early settlement.  In order to get a better perspective of this summer of disastrous weather conditions in Australia I have been referring to maps of the current situation as well as historical maps.


When we faced cyclones while living in the Atherton Tablelands outside Cairns we really appreciated the Bureau of Meteorology’s map showing the trajectory and size of the cyclone as well as its predicted path.   These maps are updated regularly while a cyclone is active.  While the map that we referred to has been replaced, the map currently shows the history of the movement of this cyclone.

There are many maps of the flooding that has affected Australia in the last couple of months but they come in varying qualities.  The following are my top three maps of the recent floods:

  1. Nearmap high resolution photo and street map of Brisbane, 14/1/2011:  This is a standout.  The photos were taken at the height of the floods and from there Nearmap created a map that was quickly made publicly available.  The resolution is so good that I was able to see the place I stayed in last year surrounded by the waters.
  2. Esri Brisbane City Council Flood Map:  This is a streetmap without photos.  However, I like the use of colour to demonstrate the reach of the floods on the map.  This enables the reader of the map to understand the extent of the infiltration of floodwaters at a glance.
  3. Australia Floods:  An Interactive Map by United Kingdom’s Guardian, 5/1/2011:  Published at the beginning of January, this gives a great overview of the extent of flooding in central and southern Queensland.  It gives the reader some perspective of the size of the floods by allowing them to see a map of the United Kingdom and Ireland superimposed on the flood map.  Embedded photos of the flooding are well done.

Overall the quality of the flood maps for Brisbane were much higher than those mapping other places.  This is a natural consequence of the larger population affected by floods in Brisbane than elsewhere.

Hats off to the people who produced these maps which have conveyed good information:

  • Flood Impacted Towns, SES Victoria, 22/1/2011:   This is the best map of the flooding in Victoria that I have seen.  It shows the towns that have been affected and the river basins that are experiencing floods.  At first glance it might look like the entire coloured area is under water which is not the case, but it does indicate that a large area of Victoria is on alert.
  • Our Stories using Nearmap:  This is an innovative use of maps to record flood stories and raise funds.  At the moment it only has stories about the floods in Brisbane.  Get online and add your flood story if you live in flood-affected areas elsewhere.

Overall I was disappointed with the mapping of the Victorian floods in the media.  We have been told that a quarter of the state has been flood-affected during January but I couldn’t find a good map that showed this on popular media websites.

Keep in mind that the floods are not over.  Every time there is a cyclone there is a large dump of water somewhere, and this can go on for days.  There are other weather systems in southern Australia that are expected to cause flooding.  At the time of writing this post there are flood warnings current for Queensland, Northern Territory, New South Wales and Victoria, while South Australia has a lower level ‘flood watch’ advice.

The wet season is far from over.  It finishes in April, so we still have another couple of months in which more cyclones and monsoon troughs could form unleashing significant amounts of rain.


Maps generally are a picture taken at a point of time.  However, maps such as the Bureau of Meteorology’s cyclone map also show movement over time.  It is difficult to convey the movement of floods over time on a map but the Herald-Sun had a go on their map, ‘Queensland Floods: How the flood spread across the state‘, published on 25/1/2011.   This is a video showing the progression of the rain and floods in Queensland and northern New South Wales from 20th December to 17th January.  It provides a good state-wide (or nation-wide if you re-size the map) perspective and allows the viewer to compare the flood area with other places in the world.  It would be helpful if this could be viewed in full-screen mode, state borders were more clearly marked, some place names added and the floods in other states were mapped.

“It is important to record this and to map it, so the next generation has an understanding of what does work and how they can protect their towns,” commented the Victorian premier, Ted Baillieu, recently.  As I have indicated in a previous post, the flooding of the Brisbane River has been documented and mapped ever since white settlement.  NewScientist has published a great article on the history and maps of flooding in Brisbane.

I like the presentation of historic flood maps on a current map of Brisbane done by Soul Solutions.  Hopefully they will soon post an overlay of the latest Brisbane flood peak on this map.

While it is not a map the Bureau of Meteorology’s pages on the history of flooding in Queensland are definitely worth browsing.  There is also have a section that looks at previous cyclones.  Have a look at the map they have constructed showing the path of cyclones since 1906.

Flooding is a normal occurence in Australia as are cyclones during the wet season.  I have recently discovered the Historic Atlas of Queensland and today found their page on cyclones.  Their article on cyclones states that it wasn’t until World War II that significant developments were made in the ability to predict and track cyclones.  I can’t imagine how hard it would have been on people living through cyclones before World War II.  Living through a cyclone can be a traumatic experience.  Having virtually no idea of how big the cyclone was to become, how long it would last and where it was heading would have made it even tougher for people to cope.

A cyclone is frightening no matter how good the forecasting is.  Our family near Tully had a scary night.  During the eye of the cyclone they escaped from their damaged home to a sturdier house belonging to a neighbour close by.  We did not know if they made it.  Several hours later we received news that they were safe.  Their house is unlivable, but they are safe.

Several Weeks Later…

My sister-in-law, June, whose husband made that phone call to us while the cyclone was raging, has just written a post about her family’s experience of Cyclone Yasi.

Added at a Later date

  • 10/5/2011:  The Queensland Reconstruction Authority has created an interactive reconstruction map which shows the extent of the floods and is intended to show the progress in fixing the damage caused by them.

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