Eastern Australia: Flooding Hits Queensland and New South Wales

update 10 march 2022 - sydney flooding

After the wettest start to the year on record for the region, with 862mm recorded in Sydney from 1 January to 8 March (Guardian, 2022h), heavy rain continues to cause havoc in New South Wales after the past few week’s more widespread floods.

There were two fatalities reported as roads were inundated by floodwaters in western Sydney, taking the combined death toll from the Queensland and New South Wales floods to 20 (BBC, 2022b). An emergency services spokesperson compared the scale of the event to that of the devastating bushfires which caused such widespread damage in 2019-20 (Channel News Asia, 2022).

Evacuation orders were issued to upwards of 60,000 people in Sydney, including those threatened by an anticipated overtopping of the Manly Dam, although this order was later downscaled to an evacuation warning as levels peaked without causing a serious dam breach (Guardian, 2022h).

Heavy rain eased by Wednesday, but strong winds exceeding 90 km/h continued, with water levels on the Nepean and Hawkesbury rivers a continuing cause for concern (Sydney Morning Herald, 2022). The Roseville Bridge in Sydney, which usually sits 17m above normal water levels, was flooded, causing issues to those travelling over the main commuter bridge (New York Times, 2022).

This flooding in Sydney only serves to exacerbate impacts from weeks of heavy rainfall and flooding across the Eastern coast of Australia, which was declared a national emergency on Wednesday 9 March by the Australian Prime Minister – the first time a national emergency has been declared since it was created as a legislative power after the 2020 wildfires (New York Times, 2022).

This declaration will help to fast-track aid and supplies to those areas impacted by the flooding, with more than 60,000 people still under evacuation orders or alerts (New York Times, 2022). Schools remain closed, and people in the Illawarra region and Sydney metropolitan area are being asked to only travel if an emergency (New York Times, 2022).

JBA's Event Response team has produced a flood footprint for the event, providing estimated extents and depths for Queensland and New South Wales, with an update for the floods in Sydney. To access the footprint or for more information, email the team at EventResponse@jbarisk.com.

Read more about these record floods in the original event report below.

To receive the latest event response updates, sign up to the JBA mailing list using the form.

Record rainfall and river levels recorded during major event in february-march 2022

Following a storm that hit the eastern coast of Australia on 23 February 2022, over three days of heavy rain caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating up to 18,000 homes in Queensland and causing major damage in that state and in New South Wales (BBC, 2022).

Twelve people are known to have lost their lives in Queensland and New South Wales during the event, with others still unaccounted for (Sky News, 2022a). The work of the emergency services and other rescue teams has been lauded, with thousands of people being rescued from rising waters, including many who had been forced to seek refuge on the roofs of their houses (Guardian, 2022a).

In Brisbane, 15,000 homes are thought to have been flooded, whilst the central business district has been inundated, causing damage to many business premises (Guardian, 2022b). The cost of the flooding is already expected to be in the billions, with 31,000 claims related to the event already made by 1 March, according to the Insurance Council of Australia (Brisbane Times, 2022).

Lismore, New South Wales, is no stranger to flooding, but this event is thought to be the worst to hit the town since 1954, with 700mm of rain falling in 30 hours. Around 300,000 people live in areas subject to evacuation orders, with authorities saying that Lismore and surrounding areas were experiencing a natural disaster of “unprecedented” proportions (Daily Telegraph [AU], 2022a).

As of Thursday 3 March, the Insurance Council of Australia reported over 60,000 flood-related claims across Queensland and New South Wales, of which 83% relate to property with the remainder relating to motor vehicles (Guardian, 2022g). Based on previous flood events, the current cost of claims is estimated to be around $AUD 900m (Guardian, 2022g). The event is expected to trigger reinsurance claims (Artemis, 2022).

Meteorological Overview

Areas of low pressure commonly form off the east coast of Australia between March and August, locally known as East Coast Lows (ECLs). The ECL that developed off the south coast of Queensland on 23 February was therefore unexceptional in its origin; however, there were two additional factors that resulted in a significant increase in both the intensity and duration of its associated rainfall.

The first factor was an area of high pressure that simultaneously formed over New Zealand, which acted to block the normal progression of the ECL from west to east. The ECL therefore became stuck over the Australian mainland, resulting in days of torrential rainfall.

Figure 1. Simplified diagram showing the location of the East Coast Low (pale blue) in context with the (1) ‘blocking’ area of high pressure over New Zealand (orange) and (2) upper-level area of low pressure (dark blue) that both exacerbated rainfall over eastern Australia. Arrows denote direction of wind flow around the areas of low and high pressure. Further information can be found at: AskBOM: What is an East Coast Low?

The other factor was the formation of a secondary area of low pressure high above the surface over western Queensland, which had developed from a pocket of cold air moving northwards from the South Pole. By 25 February, this ‘upper low’ drifted above the ECL, intensifying the surface-level disturbance and leading to the formation of a ‘rain bomb’ (Guardian, 2022a). Thunderstorms broke out along the coast, exacerbating the ongoing floods.

By 27 February, the storm system began to track south towards New South Wales.

Figure 2. Satellite-observed rainfall animation over Australia from 23 February to 1 March. Data source NASA GPM, 2022 (video produced by JBA Risk Management, 2022).



Impacts were felt along the south-eastern coast of Queensland, including Brisbane and areas along the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, as well as some regions further inland such as Gympie which has experienced “the worst flooding in more than a century” with around 1,000 properties affected (Canstar, 2022). The resulting flood crisis has been described as worse than the devastating storms of 1974 (9 News, 2022a).

Water levels in the Brisbane River rose to 3.85m, inundating around 18,000 homes and causing widespread significant damage (BBC News, 2022). The river Logan to the south of Brisbane peaked at 20m overnight on Monday, leaving nearby homes covered in mud and debris (9 News, 2022a).

There have been at least nine known fatalities in Queensland (Sky News, 2022a), and over 1,500 people are being hosted in evacuation centres along the Gold Coast, where more than 100 water rescues were carried out (Brisbane Times, 2022a).

More than 15,000 homes have been damaged across Queensland (9 News, 2022a; Guardian, 2022b), with over 3,600 houses affected in Gympie alone (Brisbane Times, 2022a). Nearly 1,000 schools have been closed in south-east Queensland, and there have been major disruptions to public transport and highways (Guardian, 2022c).

Figure 3. Rainfall accumulation along the east coast of Australia over a seven-day period between 23 February and 1 March 2022. Data source NASA GPM, 2022 (image produced by JBA Risk Management, 2022).

New South Wales

The rain cleared south from Queensland on 27 February, bringing impacts along the north-east coast of New South Wales (NSW). As of 1 March, there were 26 evacuation orders across the state affecting around 40,000 citizens – this includes South Ballina where the mayor has described the flooding as a “one-in-500-year weather event” (9 News, 2022b), and in the town of Murwillumbah where rising river levels breached the levees (The Guardian, 2022c). At least three people are known to have lost their lives in NSW (Sky News, 2022a).

Perhaps the most severely affected region is the city of Lismore, which lies at the confluence of Leycester Creek and Wilsons River. Although Lismore is no stranger to flooding, this event is now considered the worst flood the area has ever seen (BBC News, 2022).

The water level along Wilsons River rose significantly during the event and peaked at 14.37m (9 News, 2022b), over two metres higher than the previous record levels in 1954 (Guardian, 2022c). The river levees - usually built to withstand floodwaters up to around 10.5m - were breached on the morning of 28 February (ABC, 2022a; BBC News, 2022), an event which has not occurred since ex-tropical cyclone Debbie in 2017 (Guardian, 2022b).

Flood waters inundated the city, leaving the entire central business district underwater (Guardian, 2022c). Many people were left stranded on their rooftops as water encroached up to the second storey (close to 6m), prompting over 500 flood rescue operations (Guardian, 2022d). Since the start of the flooding, the New South Wales State Emergency Services has received over 11,000 requests for help, with over 1,400 calls since 2 March (Guardian, 2022g).

The Resilience Commissioner for NSW has remarked that a full recovery for many impacted areas could take months or even years (9 News, 2022b).

Return period analysiS

Rainfall totals have exceeded typical values for the time of year. Over 30 locations across south-east Queensland experienced record rainfall totals in excess of 1,000mm (9 News, 2022a), with some areas of Brisbane receiving close to the annual average in just a few days (Table 1) (Guardian, 2022b). Lismore in New South Wales recorded 181mm in a period of 30 minutes at one point (Guardian, 2022c), and over 700mm in less than 30 hours (Daily Telegraph [AU], 2022b).

Table 1: Accumulated rainfall (in mm) between 23 and 28 February 2022, in context with the monthly and annual average rainfall, from observation stations across Queensland (QLD) and New South Wales (NSW). Data Source: Bureau of Meteorology Commonwealth of Australia (2022b).

Our sister company Jeremy Benn Pacific, based in Australia, estimated return periods from measured peak river levels from river gauge data (Figure 4), and from the maximum daily rainfall recorded during the event from rainfall stations (Figure 5) across eastern Australia. Estimated return periods (greater than 100-years) were observed along Wilsons River at Lismore and along the Richmond River further south at Woodburn (Figure 4). North Brisbane and areas between the Gold Coast and Lismore saw the largest estimated return periods from the maximum daily rainfall measured between 23 February – 1 March 2022 (Figure 5).

Figure 4: Estimated return periods from peak river levels measured between 23 February – 1 March 2022 and historical records at river gauges in Queensland and New South Wales. Data from Bureau of Meteorology Commonwealth of Australia (2022a). Data analysis conducted by JBP; maps produced by JBA Risk Management.

Figure 5: Estimated return periods from the maximum daily rainfall measured between 22-28 February 2022 at rainfall stations in Queensland and New South Wales. Data from Bureau of Meteorology Commonwealth of Australia (2022b). Data analysis conducted by JBP; maps produced by JBA Risk Management.

Significant historical events

Although it is common for the east coast of Australia to experience heavy rainfall at this time of year, the events of February-March 2022 have exceeded usual expectations.

During the 2011 Brisbane floods, the Brisbane River level peaked at 4.46m. At the time, this was described as a once-in-a-century event; however, the region has now experienced two significant events in a decade, with the Brisbane River peaking at 3.85m on 28 February 2022. Rainfall during the 2011 event was primarily concentrated over western areas, with flooding neither as extreme nor as widespread as the 2022 event. The Premier of Queensland noted that rainfall totals of this magnitude have never been observed over such a short period of time in their south-east catchment (Guardian, 2022a).

In New South Wales, Wilsons River at Lismore rose to an unprecedented level of 14.46m on 28 February, over 2m higher than the previous record from 1954 (12.15m), making it the most extreme flood event to ever hit the area (Guardian, 2022b).

Table 2: Impacts and losses from five significant historical flood events across Queensland (QLD) and New South Wales (NSW).

Ongoing impacts

The weather system continued to track south into New South Wales, with further flooding in the Central Coast, Sydney, Illawarra and South Coast catchments (Guardian, 2022c).

As of Thursday 3 March, more than 30 evacuation warnings remain in place in an area 800km long from Brisbane to Sydney (NDTV, 2022), with half a million people in and around Sydney under evacuation orders or evacuation alerts (Sky News, 2022b). Several areas remain on high alert for major flooding along rivers in the Sydney area after parts of the city received up to 100m rainfall in 24 hours (Sky News, 2022b; Guardian, 2022g).

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has issued warnings of life-threatening flash flooding and dangerous winds of up to 90km/h (Sky News, 2022b), with a large stretch of coastline expected to be impacted, extending from Newcastle in New South Wales to the south coast and almost to the border with Victoria (Guardian, 2022f).

Waters were still rising in Brisbane, due to ongoing severe thunderstorms, with the chance of further flooding to the Sydney area from Thursday onwards (Sky News, 2022b).

While the Sydney and Illawarra region avoided the worst effects of the East Coast Low, which instead eased and moved westwards over the Newcastle and Hunter region, the Warragamba Dam in Sydney remains under monitoring. Supplying 80% of the city’s water, the dam began to overflow into the surrounding floodplain earlier in the week and had already reached 99% capacity by Tuesday 1 March (Guardian, 2022f). However, lower than predicted rainfall totals have eased some concerns over the dam (Guardian, 2022g).

One dam which was subject to a controlled release was the Wivenhoe Dam in south-east Queensland, which rose to 100.2% of capacity on 25 February. This was expected to increase risk of moderate flooding downstream on the Brisbane River, although the release was stopped an hour after it was begun, to prevent more severe flooding to downstream areas. In 2011 a release from the dam contributed to extensive flooding in Brisbane and Ipswich (ABC, 2022)

Newcastle and Hunter bore the brunt of the storm, remaining under a severe weather warning as of Thursday 3 March, with rainfall totals of up to 100mm over a 6-hour period still possible (Guardian, 2022g).

A second upper-level low pressure system is predicted to cross south-eastern Australia over the weekend, which could bring further rainfall to the region over Sunday and into Monday, with the potential for another low-pressure system to form near the coast early next week (Guardian, 2022g) – placing further strain on cleanup processes and emergency services.

Future outlook

In the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, published while the impacts of these floods are still unfolding, this event comes as yet another reminder of the threat posed by a warming world.

In the space of just a few years, Australia has experienced some of its most extreme weather on record, with scorching temperatures, deadly wildfires, and catastrophic flooding affecting large swathes of the country.

The risk of climate change to Australia is highlighted in the IPCC report, with the kind of storms and flooding seen in Eastern Australia expected to increase in future alongside heatwaves, wildfires and drought (Guardian 2022e).

Recent research into the East Coast Low weather system highlights that this system has already changed, noticeably shifting in its location since 1970 which can severely impact the Australian coast through natural hazards like heavy rainfall and extreme tides (Speer et al., 2021). However, the paper also notes that the historical records available on ECL are relatively short and require urgent updating to understand present and future trends (Speer et al., 2021).

While it is difficult to determine the impact of climate change on this particular event, with some of the origins a result of the unusual combination of several atmospheric conditions, meteorologists believe climate change is likely to have made the event worse (Guardian, 2022; Guardian, 2022b).

Professor Mark Howden, vice-chair of the IPCC working group behind the report, also highlighted that the climate crisis was “embedded in this event”, with increasing ocean and atmospheric temperatures increasing the intensity of major storms and leading to heavier rainfall (Guardian 2022e).

The East Coast cluster region, stretching from Rockhampton in Queensland to Sydney in New South Wales, encompasses the drainage basins of several major rivers, as well as five of the 10 largest significant urban areas in Australia, with the population of the region totalling over 42% of the country’s total population (Australian Government, 2022).

This exposes the region to not only river and surface water risk from heavy rainfall and storms, but also significant risk to major coastal urban settlements. The IPCC report highlights coastal flooding and global mean sea level rise as a major area of concern under a changing climate, impacting coastal communities around the world. The global population exposed to a 100-year coastal flood is projected to increase by 20% if global mean sea level rises by 0.15m relative to 2020 levels, with the exposed population expected to increase by 50% if this rise is 0.75m (IPCC, 2022).

The IPCC stresses the importance of effective climate action, from sustainable infrastructure development and natural flood management to strategic policy planning and financing of climate resilience – all of which will no doubt be key for Australia as the global community works to manage climate risk.

To help organisations manage flood risk, now and in the future, JBA offers high resolution flood data and bespoke consultancy services, already being used by many re/insurers and governmental organisations in Australia. To find out more, get in touch with the team.

JBA's Event Response team has produced a flood footprint for the event, providing estimated extents and depths for Queensland and New South Wales. To access the footprint or for more information, email the team at EventResponse@jbarisk.com.

To ensure you are kept up to date with all future event response and company updates, subscribe to our mailing list using the form below.

This report is covered by JBA’s website terms – please read them here.


Sydney flooding update

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Original report

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