Australia’s maritime officials are keeping a wary eye on the oceans around north west Australia as Cyclone Wallace menaces the Pilbara-region coastline. The harbour master for Port Walcott directed that the port be cleared. However, it was a narrow miss for iron ore export facility, Port Walcott, as the cyclone swerved away. And so the harbour master cancelled the direction to clear the port. Iron ore exports are, nonetheless, likely to disrupted. But it’s not over yet as, to the north east of Wallace, a “tropical low” is threatening to build up into a cyclone too.
Australia’s north west region, known locally as the Pilbara, is significant to the international maritime markets owing to the exports of iron ore, liquefied natural gas, and oil (see details below).
At approximately midday local time yesterday, Sunday April 7, Tropical Cyclone Wallace stood over open waters 500 km (311 miles) and was forecast to slowly strengthen and track the coast offshore. Port Walcott, a 185 million metric ton capacity port (one metric ton is equal to 2204.6 U.S. pounds), was forecast to be hit by “significant swell and wave heights” today (Monday April 8).
The harbour master, marine safety, at the Department of Transport in Western Australia declared that Port Walcott should be cleared by midday, today. It would have been a blow to Port Walcott, which was recently clobbered by Cyclone Veronica and which put several berths out of operation.
We understood from a Rio Tinto statement that all berths would have been cleared by midday today and inner anchorages by 18:00 today.
However, cyclones are fickle beasts.
It swerved off to the south east.
Although the cyclone is forecast to strengthen to a peak by 14:00 (local time) on April 9, the current forecast is that Wallace will track some distance offshore from the coast and will blow out at sea. Port Walcott will not be hit by the Cyclone..
Accordingly, the harbour master’s directions to clear Port Walcott were cancelled this afternoon. Local port and shipping operators will assess wind and swell over the next few days.
However, as will be seen from the picture above, a tropical low has formed in the north of Australia. It is entirely possible that this low could strengthen into a cyclone. Even if it does not strengthen into a cyclone it could well bring adverse weather and ocean conditions. The new moon appeared only a few days ago (Friday April 5) which means, owing to the gravitational pull of the moon on the waters of the Earth, there will be higher tides (spring tides). Add in the effects of a storm surge and there could be very large swells too.
We understand that the port operator at Port Walcott/Cape Lambert is warning that vessels will be loaded sporadically over the next few days until both the cyclone and tropical low disappear. So, at the very least, the international dry bulk market should expect disruptions from Port Walcott.
One executive speculated to FreightWaves that it’s likely the operator of Port Walcott, Rio Tinto, will finish off loading ships that are already present at the port but the executive thought that the operator will probably not accept new vessels.
Ports along the Pilbara coast
There are numerous, internationally significant, ports along the Pilbara coast of Australia.
Port Hedland is thought to be the world’s biggest iron ore bulk export port. It handled 519.4 million metric tons of exported bulk cargoes in the 2017-2018 financial year. As a metric ton is 2,204 U.S. pounds, Hedland’s volume equates to 572.5 million U.S. tons (all further volumes will be given in metric tons). Just over 98 percent of Hedland’s throughput is iron ore.
Dampier, is 1,258 kilometers (782 miles) north of Perth. Dampier mostly exports iron ore, salt, liquefied natural gas and anhydrous ammonia. It also handles project cargo, break bulk and general cargo. In the 2017-2018 financial year, Dampier handled 177.3 million metric tons of cargo, of which 82.6 percent was iron ore for export. It’s thought to be the second-biggest iron ore export port.
Port Walcott is owned and operated by Rio Tinto. It has a capacity of about 185 million metric tons per annum of iron ore. The throughput of Port Walcott was 170.3 million tons; 128 million went to Chinese buyers and the other 42.3 million went to other north Asian buyers (Japan, Korea). It may well be the world’s third largest iron ore bulk export port.
There are also several oil and gas facilities in the region. Ashburton, a liquefied natural gas export facility handled 2.6 million metric export tons in 2017-2018 and 90 vessels. Barrow Island, a significant West Australian oil export facility, is operated by oil major Chevron. There are also several offshore floating oil and gas facilities in the region.