Northern Australia, February - March 2020

Tropical cyclone Esther

Tropical cyclone Esther was the third tropical cyclone to cross the Australian coast in the 2019-20 season and the first to strike the Northern Territory. During its brief life on 24 February, Esther brought heavy rainfall and category 1 winds to the southern Gulf of Carpentaria coast, then became a long-lived and intense tropical low which delivered significant rainfall to the northern half of the Northern Territory, the Kimberley region of Western Australia and south-western Queensland from late February to early March.

Esther began when a tropical low formed in a monsoon trough over the northern Gulf of Carpentaria on 21 February and remained slow moving for the next two days. On 23 February, the low intensified while moving slowly south and Tropical cyclone Esther was named at 4.00am AEST on 24 February when about 80 kilometres (km) north of Mornington Island. The cyclone turned towards the south-west and its centre crossed the coast just east of the Northern Territory - Queensland border at category 1 intensity at around 11.00am on 24 January. Esther then weakened into a tropical low later the same day as it passed around 120 km south-east of Borroloola in the Northern Territory.

The remnant tropical low maintained a strong circulation with central pressure around 996 hectopascals (hPa) during the following week as it travelled west across the Northern Territory and into the Kimberley region of Western Australia on 27 February. The low traversed the northern Kimberley then tracked south-west while deepening to 993 hPa as it approached the coast north of Derby on 29 February. The low turned south and then east, staying over land and re-entered the Northern Territory near the Tanami desert for a second time, passing close to Tennant Creek before dissipating over south-western Queensland on 5 March.

Very heavy rainfall associated with the system resulted in flood watches and warnings being issued in both the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Large increases in water levels were observed in major rivers across the Top End resulting in minor incidents including a swift water rescue, but no fatalities or injuries were recorded.

Roads throughout the two regions and south-west Queensland were impacted by the Esther weather system, and numerous towns, small communities and homesteads were isolated for an extended period, with several requiring resupply by air. The McArthur River at Borroloola reached minor flood level from 26-29 February. Other Northern Territory impacts included highways and roads being cut by floodwaters in the Carpentaria, Barkly, Gregory and Simpson districts.

Widespread falls between 150 and 250 millimetres were recorded in many areas. The outback town of Thargomindah in south-west Queensland broke its 21-year-old record for its wettest day as torrential rain swept across much of drought-declared western Queensland. Thargomindah and Birdsville recorded more rain in two days than their rainfall total for the past two years.

The prolonged rainfall associated with Esther and the remnant low provided relief rain for many pastoralists but not drought-breaking rains, easing a prolonged dry period but not preventing a below-average wet season. Within days of the rain commencing, grass began shooting in recently-parched paddocks.

The Australian Government made disaster recovery funding available for counter disaster operations and the reconstruction of essential public assets in five local government areas in the NT and QLD impacted by Esther and related flooding.


This incident was included in the Major Incidents Report 2019-20 (AIDR 2020). See the report for further information on the incident. The report acknowledges the following sources: Queensland Fire and Emergency Services; Bureau of Meteorology; ABC News.