Wild winds, huge sea waves and rain batter Australian tourist spots

A floating waterpark during stormy conditions on Morton Bay in Australia, on Dec 14, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRISBANE (REUTERS, AFP) - Cyclonic conditions along Australia's northeast coast generated huge seas washing away beaches at popular tourist spots and destructive winds and rain causing widespread flooding, authorities said on Monday (Dec 14).

Main Beach at Byron Bay, a popular tourist destination in northern New South Wales state and home to Hollywood A-listers such as Chris Hemsworth, has all but disappeared, Byron Mayor Simon Richardson told media on Monday.

Television news footage showed a concrete walkway along the beach collapsing into the sea.

"Right now around Byron, we've got some severe weather, massive swells, we're watching our beach disappear," he said.

"What we've got here is yet another event. An extreme weather event coming on the back of climate change that our community's dealing with. It's about the fourth or fifth major event in the last couple of years," said Mr Richardson.

The wet conditions contrast with the fierce bushfires that ravaged world heritage listed Fraser Island in Queensland state in recent weeks. On Monday, fire evacuation points on Fraser Island were underwater due to high tides and huge waves.

Australian firefighters have managed to control the bushfire that burned more than half of the island, around two months after a suspected illegal campfire sparked the blaze.

The fire on the world's largest sand island, off Australia's east coast, destroyed large swathes of the isle's forests before heavy downpours arrived over the weekend.

"With the help of welcome rainfall and a massive response from crews, the fire is now contained," Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said on Twitter on Sunday.

The heavy band of rain and wild winds, generated by an intense low pressure system off the southern Queensland coast, battered the heavily-populated border regions between New South Wales and Queensland for the third day bringing more than 700mm of rain in some places over 48 hours.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology warned that coastal erosion, hazardous rain and huge waves off the coast would continue through Monday and urged motorists to stay off the roads.

Australia is expecting a wetter than usual summer this year due to a La Nina weather phenomenon, typically associated with greater rainfall and more tropical cyclones, though a major heat wave had sweltered the east just weeks ago.

"Major coastal erosion is ongoing along numerous beaches in northeast (New South Wales) and southeast Queensland as spring tides combined with large waves and gale force easterly winds eat away sand from beaches," said Bureau of Meteorology's meteorologist Dean Narramore.

The storms come just over a week after a heatwave swept through much of the region, sending temperatures soaring to 35 deg C in some areas.

Scientists say climate change is fuelling more extreme weather in Australia - including droughts, bushfires and cyclones - which will only worsen as global temperatures rise.

The country is one of the world's leading fossil fuel exporters and the conservative government has dragged its heels on reducing carbon emissions, despite recent polling showing Australians are increasingly concerned about climate change.

The Fraser Island fire was the first major blaze of the Australian summer, coming as the country recovered from the devastating 2019-20 fires, which burned an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom and left 33 people dead.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service said the fire burned through more than 50 per cent of the 166,000-hectare island, raising fears of widespread environmental damage.

Known for its large population of dingoes, or native wild dogs, Fraser Island was listed by the United Nations as a world heritage site for its rainforests, freshwater dune lakes and complex system of sand dunes that are still evolving.

Also known as K'gari, meaning paradise in the local Butchulla people's language, it attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually.

The island will reopen from Tuesday after a two-week closure, though visitors will largely be restricted to undamaged areas.

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