Is South Africa due for a tropical cyclone?

Cyclone Eline

Tropical Cyclone Eline making landfall over central Mozambique in February 2000. Image: NOAA

CAPE TOWN - Most South Africans wouldn’t associate tropical cyclones with our shores but they can and do affect our country. They are rare occurrences, with only one storm having crossed into our borders in the last 33 years.

By the time they reach us they have usually been considerably weakened after passing over Madagascar and Mozambique, by cooler waters off our east coast, or interfering non-tropical weather systems. For this reason it is extremely rare that wind is a cause of major damage here, but flooding is usually the factor resulting in damage and loss of life.

Tropical storm activity over South Africa was especially high in the 1970’s. Tropical depression Caroline and cyclone Eugenie both affected the country in February 1972. In 1976 tropical cyclone Danae brought heavy rainfall and flooding to the north-eastern part of the country, and a year later, in ‘77, tropical storm Emilie brought major flooding to a similar area with 300 hundred deaths reported in the Limpopo Valley.

1984 saw 2 tempests hit South Africa. The infamous Domoina, although only reaching tropical storm strength, passed over southern Mozambique and made a beeline for Swaziland and northern KwaZulu-Natal. Here Domoina wreaked havoc, producing extreme rainfall and historic flooding levels in those areas, resulting in severe damage and killing 73 people in Swaziland and 60 in South Africa.

After a 16-year hiatus, tropical cyclone Eline barrelled across the Indian Ocean in February 2000. After leaving a trail of destruction in Madagascar and Mozambique she continued, albeit weakened, to move further inland over southern Africa. Eline brought extreme rainfall and flooding to parts of eastern Limpopo and Mpumalanga, causing hundreds of millions of rand in damage and killing 21 people in South Africa alone.

It’s been 17 years since Eline, and in that time no other significant tropical storm or cyclone has had a major effect on our country. Does this mean we are due for another? Judging by the historical data it would seem that we are.

The 2016-17 cyclone season in the south-western Indian Ocean got off to a slow start, and to date there have only been 3 named systems in the region, all of which have remained far from South Africa. Tropical cyclone Carlos is still swirling south of Reunion and Mauritius after bringing strong winds and heavy rainfall to those islands earlier this week.

Current model predictions indicate that a low will form within the central Mozambique Channel and very slowly deepen this weekend and into early next week. For now, there seems to be potential for further intensification in the southern parts of the Channel, between Mozambique and Madagascar, in the latter half of next week but one must keep in mind that the movement and intensity of these types of weather systems are notoriously difficult to predict beyond a couple of days.

The eNCA Weather team will be closely monitoring any developments of this predicted system.