Back at the beginning of June 2016, the eastern coastline of Australia endured severe weather conditions. A meteorological event known as an east coast low materialized there, leaving certain places near the sea devastated. But then, shortly after the storms had calmed, something strange started to wash up along the east coast.
This particular east coast low brought significant wind and rain to the Australian state of New South Wales. And this, in turn, led to flooding and severe erosion of the coast. Hundreds of homes and businesses needed repair following storm damage. And a number of people lost their lives.
The east coast low came about when two different storm systems joined together on June 3, 2016. The resulting system stretched out over 1,864 miles – encompassing all of New South Wales’ coastal edge. In fact, this was the first time in more than three decades that flood and extreme weather warnings had been issued across the area’s entire coastline.
Eventually, the storms abated and the people of eastern Australia could assess the resulting damage to their homes, businesses and infrastructure. But in the days after conditions had eased, people started to witness something odd. Indeed, huge waves of thick foam began washing over certain areas, burying them in layers of frothy white.
Strangely, this was not the first time that huge amounts of froth had covered areas of eastern Australia. In fact, a similar occurrence actually took place around three years beforehand, in January 2013. And this event, too, came about after severe weather conditions battered the region for an extended period.
This particular weather occurrence took place over six months, starting in November of 2012 and ending in April of 2013. This period saw a number of storms, known as cyclones, forming along the country’s northern coasts during its stormy season. The strongest of these weather events, named Narelle, came with winds raging at 120mph.
A cyclone is a weather event where air swirls around a central point of low pressure. But a tropical cyclone, such as those in Australia, materializes when air laden with warm moisture rises into the sky. The heat coming from that air then feeds the cyclone. As a result, strong winds, thunder and heavy rainfall occur.
In addition to wind, rain and thunder, tropical cyclones can also bring about storm surges. This happens when coastal waters rise dramatically, not unlike a tsunami. Storm surges are at their strongest over water, before weakening when they encounter land. As a result, seaside areas can suffer extreme levels of damage after a surge.
On January 17, 2013, the beginnings of what would soon become known as Tropical Cyclone Oswald were first noted by experts. Initially just an occurrence of low pressure, eventually this storm system progressed over the waters of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. It then reached land near the Northern Territory town of Borroloola, before going out to sea once again.
Over water once more, the storm system intensified and on January 21 it completed its transformation into Tropical Cyclone Oswald. Half a day later, it hit land again and started to travel over coastal regions of Queensland. Still going strong on January 30, by this time, Oswald had progressed some 1,900 miles. At which point, it arrived in New South Wales.
As the cyclone moved along the coast, authorities in New South Wales and neighboring Queensland attempted to prepare. Flood warnings were issued near numerous rivers and people were informed of the potentially destructive wind and rain heading straight for them. And in Queensland specifically, a dam was drained in anticipation of high water levels.
But despite those precautionary measures, parts of both states were subjected to relentless damage from Tropical Cyclone Oswald. The Queensland town of Tully was among the first to be hit by significant rain. In fact, over the course of just two days, the area received almost 25 inches of rainfall.
Elsewhere in the state, in a settlement called Ingham, inhabitants were encouraged to obtain emergency provisions after the local Herbert River rose significantly. The swollen river was the result of nearly eight inches of rain splashing down in only a few hours. And in an area known as Hay Point, there were even reports of the emergence of a waterspout.
A waterspout is a vortex which appears to jut out from the water and rise into the clouds. Essentially spinning spirals of air, they are capable of sucking up sea creatures and sending the hapless beasts skyward. And while instances of human fatalities due to these phenomena are rare, they are not totally unheard of.
And Oswald didn’t just produce vortexes on water. Indeed, at around lunchtime on January 26, 2013, a tornado passed through Bargara in Queenland’s Bundaberg Region. A second twister then hit nearby Burnett Heads and a third developed at Coonarr, close to the initial whirlwind. Together, these three tornadoes caused damage to around 150 buildings and left no less than 17 people with injuries.
Then, on January 29, 2013, the Burnett River, which runs through Queensland, achieved its greatest depth since records began. As a result, over 7,500 people in the city of Bundaberg – which lies along the aforementioned river – fled their homes. Furthermore, a nearby highway became unusable after a landslide buried it.
In addition, Oswald destroyed an important bridge and left the settlements of Tara, Kumbarilla and Kogan stranded. Numerous other towns and cities also experienced huge levels of flooding, along with mudslides in some areas. And the cyclone even threatened a number of communities’ drinking water when it forced the closure of a major water treatment facility.
And when Oswald hit New South Wales, approximately 41,000 people were stranded due to flooding. The Clarence River in Grafton reached its most significant depth in more than 160 years, while many nearby residents were encouraged to evacuate. Luckily, the river’s levees prevented the resulting storm damage to the area from being much worse.
After some 11 days of existence, Tropical Cyclone Oswald eventually faded away on January 28, 2013. But, of course, by this time, it had inflicted significant damage on parts of Queensland and New South Wales. Indeed, an estimated 300,000 premises dealt with power outages, with around 5,300 still affected three days later.
According to reports published in the wake of the cyclone, at least six people lost their lives in the storms. They disrupted lines of communication, including emergency lines, as well as a number of railway routes. And the region took a hit economically, too, with sectors such as coal and citrus left reeling from significant losses.
All told, Tropical Cyclone Oswald reportedly inflicted over $2 billion worth of damage across Queensland and New South Wales. People lost their homes and sewage systems took serious damage. The communities of eastern Australia definitely took a massive hit during the storm. And then, a few days later, waves of soft and pleasant froth started to wash up in a number of towns.
Children could even be seen playing around in the suds which covered entire streets. Images capturing the event seemed to evoke an almost dreamlike quality – a stark contrast to the effects of the storm. Indeed, after the horrors that the communities had just endured, the foam must have appeared as a welcome respite.
These lathery events of January 2013 were paralleled in June 2016. As we’ve already mentioned, this latter period saw an event known as an Australian east coast low impacting the coastline. The phenomenon damaged communities and people’s lives were directly affected. But, as in 2013, the event ended with suds.
An Australian east coast low is a particular type of extratropical cyclone. These storms can bring about relatively calm showers, but they can also harbor more extreme weather such as thunder, gales and tornadoes. Unbelievably, a massive seven percent of the big disasters to impact Australia since 1967 have been down to east coast cyclones.
The east coast low that appeared in June 2016 actually joined up with something called a King tide. This is a non-scientific expression relating to a particularly high tide which only takes place a small number of times every year. Taken together, the 2016 east coast low and the King tide proved particularly damaging to parts of Australia’s coast.
Areas in the southern and central edges of Queensland were the first recipients of the predicted severe weather on June 3. Flash flooding occurred, with reports of a woman requiring treatment for exposure after rising water trapped her on top of her car. And the following morning, the storm system made its way along to the state’s Sunshine Coast.
The storm later arrived at the city of Brisbane, flooding a number of roads. Such was the devastation that authorities received over 1,000 emergency from the south-east of Queensland in the 24 hours since the cyclone hit. Indeed, around half these calls reportedly concerned damage caused by floodwater in the state.
Eventually, the storm passed through the Queensland’s Gold Coast – but any sign of respite for locals was short-lived. In a seaside settlement known as Burleigh Heads, for instance, high tides on June 4 exasperated the situation. Massive waves reaching over 13 feet high washed violently over the coast, smashing windows and generally inflicting damage.
In the nearby city of Lismore in New South Wales, over 500 locals were reportedly forced to flee to safety. Indeed, across New South Wales generally, rising waters damaged infrastructure and left certain communities isolated. One river’s water levels supposedly peaked at a little under 30 feet on the afternoon of June 5.
And in a residential seaside area known as Collaroy in Sydney, NSW, erosion was significant. With huge waves hitting the coast, entire gardens were swept away and the beach was reportedly completely eradicated. As one inhabitant of the area put it to ABC News, “There is no beach at Collaroy [anymore].”
Across Sydney in general, in fact, broken tree branches and flooding caused great disruption. And the storm had even taken a life in the area. On the morning of June 6, the remains of a man were discovered in the waters of an area called Leppington. He had, it seems, been swept away a couple of days previously.
And in a town called Bowral – mid-way between Sydney and the Australian capital Canberra – another body was discovered. And in the capital itself, authorities were forced to retrieve yet another person’s remains. The storm, then, had proven fatal for multiple people.
Eventually, the weather calmed and the people of Australia’s eastern coastline could finally assess the damage. But amid the destruction, it must have come as a great surprise to see certain areas become covered in suds. Indeed, in the days after the storm, thick foam drenched some communities. But what was it and where had it come from?
The United States’ National Ocean Service helped to explain the foamy phenomenon in a post on its website. Firstly, it mentions that seawater is full of all sorts of different matter, from salt to algae. So, if one were to collect this water in a glass jar and shake it, bubbles would appear at the top.
This same principle applies to the coasts of eastern Australia – yet to a much greater extent. Storms disturb seawater in the same way as shaking it up in a glass jar, although in a much more violent fashion. And, given this turbulence, sea foam can form and begin to wash over the coast.
Sea foam, then, essentially contains small bits of organic matter in a state of decomposition. Such matter might include algae, plankton, fungi and plants. The precise make-up of sea foam differs from region to region, though, depending on the matter present in each area of water at the time.
Generally speaking, sea foam doesn’t pose a health risk to those caught in its bubbly path. However, in some instances, airborne toxins from particular forms of algae can cause a few issues. Eye-irritation is among the symptoms, but those with breathing conditions are most vulnerable to its effects.
Algae toxin isn’t the only danger sea foam poses, though. Along the shores of eastern Australia specifically, there’s another potential threat to those in its path. While the thick white suds might initially appear charming, they can also obscure whatever might be floating among them. And that could end up being a particularly dangerous creature.
A resident of Queensland by the name of Grey Leyson elaborated on this idea to the
Brisbane Times. “The biggest hazard, I suppose, is sea snakes, there are a lot of sea snakes that get washed in,” he said. “You are very unlikely to get bitten by one, but if you do, they are pretty venomous.”
But despite the possibilities of danger, people seemed happy to play around in the foam. Indeed, videos and images which emerged online in both 2013 and 2016 illustrate as much. And after being exposed to days and days of such intense, deadly storms, who wouldn’t blow off steam by rolling around in the suds?