Cyclone Freddy: A Record-breaking System Amid a Below-average Cyclone Season
In the context of the triple-dip La Nina that brought repeated devastating flooding to the east coast of Australia during the past few years, it was feared that this southern hemisphere summer’s Tropical Cyclone (TC) season would worsen the flood toll.
Although the TC season officially ends on the 30th of April, this year’s cyclone’s activity is likely to remain remarkably below average, with the most intense TC landfall on mainland Australia being TC Ellie, then hitting Northern Territory and Western Australia as a Category 1 in late December 2022.
Nevertheless, this cyclone season will be remembered for a long time because of the record-breaking Cyclone Freddy, which formed just off the coast of Western Australia on the 6th of February 2023.
A Journey across the Indian Ocean
TC Freddy formed as a Tropical Low on February 1st, but was only classified and named as a Tropical Cyclone on February 6th.
TC Freddy rapidly reached Category 2 (154-177 km/h 1-minute sustained winds according to the Saffir-Simpson scale) on February 7th, but was never a threat to mainland Australia and was moving in a near-perfectly westerly direction, staying about 500 km south of Christmas and Cocos Islands. On February 15th, TC Freddy entered the South-West Indian Ocean basin monitored by Meteo France and continued is journey across the Indian Ocean as a severe TC, peaking in intensity as a Category 5 cyclone on February 19th with sustained winds of 255 km/h.
On February 21st 7pm local time, Freddy made its first landfall on the east coast of Madagascar as a strong Category 2.
After crossing the island, Freddy reached the warm waters of the Mozambique channel as a tropical low, but quickly re-intensified to a severe tropical storm before making its second landfall on February 24th in southern Mozambique.
Following landfall, Freddy rapidly weakened to a low-pressure system which prompted Meteo France to stop issuing warnings, but didn’t stop its monitoring as the system was likely to re-enter the Mozambique channel waters.
On March 2nd, Freddy re-emerged as a tropical low tracking towards the West coast of Madagascar. On March 6th, after being 20 km short of its third landfall in south-west Madagascar as a tropical storm, Freddy shifted direction to the north-west towards central Mozambique, crossing the Mozambique channel for a third time.
Once again, the warm waters of the Mozambique channel allowed Freddy to re-gain its tropical cyclone status, reaching Category 2 just before making its third landfall in Mozambique, near the city of Quelimane on March 12th.
After reaching the highlands of Malawi, Freddy quickly weakened to a low-pressure system and officially dissipated on March 15th.
Record-Breaking in Many Ways
Cyclone Freddy caused widespread damage in Madagascar Mozambique and Malawi, despite its relatively low intensity.
So far, 435 fatalities have been reported, including 326 in Malawi, 17 in Madagascar and Mauritius (from an offshore shipwreck) and 73 in Mozambique, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2023).
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar due to flooding and landslide. This disaster adds to the already mounting size of the displaced population in Mozambique and Malawi due to local armed conflicts and climate change.
Despite the disastrous impacts of Cyclone Freddy on these countries, it is Freddy’s unusual lifecycle that gave it record-breaking status.
Freddy’s lifetime of 38 days (from February 6th to March 15th) makes it the longest-lived cyclone ever recorded, beating the previous record set by Hurricane/Typhoon John (30 days, 1994). While the nearly 9000km distance covered by Freddy is the largest in the Indian Ocean, it is however far from the distance covered by Hurricane John, which travelled more than 13000km across the Pacific.
Cyclone Freddy has also beaten the record for the largest number of rapid intensifications by an individual cyclone as it underwent re-intensification 7 times during its journey across the Indian Ocean (the previous record was 4 times). A rapid intensification of a tropical storm is defined as an increase of at least 55 km/h in sustained wind speed in a period of 24 hours.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Freddy’s most glorious title might well be that it was one of the most energetic cyclones ever recorded (Sydney Morning Herald, 2023).
As described above, Freddy only made landfall as a Category 2 in Madagascar and Mozambique, and although it reached Category 5 for a cumulative time of 2 days, it was not the most intense (that record is currently held by hurricane Patricia with maximum sustained winds of 345km/h in 2015).
A tropical cyclone’s energy is typically measured by a metric called Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), which accumulates the cyclone’s intensity throughout its lifetime.
Because of Freddy’s record-breaking longevity, on March 12th it became the most energetic storm ever recorded, with an ACE of 86 (the previous record was set by hurricane/typhoon Ioke in 2006 with an ACE of 85.26, which traversed the Pacific Ocean for 17 days).
An ACE of 86 is higher than the combined ACE of all cyclones during an average Atlantic hurricane season, which usually includes 14 storms. Our Australian-made Freddy surely packed a punch …
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2023). https://www.unocha.org/media-centre/humanitarian-reports
Sydney Morning Herald (2023). https://www.smh.com.au/world/africa/cyclone-freddy-smashes-records-becomes-earth-s-most-energetic-storm-20230313-p5crms.html
About the author/s
Maxime’s interests focus on physical oceanography and climate sciences. He holds a PhD in Quantitative Marine Science from the University of Tasmania. During his PhD, Maxime investigated global characteristics, changes and drivers of marine heatwaves, to improve our knowledge of these ocean extreme weather events.