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Thu, 20 Jun 2024

Wind engineering pioneers continue to defy odds

Three team members of the Cyclone Testing Station stand in front of the photo of destruction following Cyclone Tracy
Cyclone Testing Station team members Adjunct Associate Professor Geoff Boughton, Adjunct Associate Professor George Walker and Chief Engineer Dr David Henderson attend the Australian Wind Engineering Society’s 22nd workshop at James Cook University.

Prior to the devastation of Cyclones Tracy and Althea in the 1970s, the idea of engineering buildings to withstand what society coined ‘acts of God’ was thought laughable.

However, pioneers in wind engineering from James Cook University defied the odds to not only revolutionise building standards but also set up the university’s ground-breaking Cyclone Testing Station in 1977 in response to the devastation in Townsville and Darwin.

The JCU Cyclone Testing Station will host the Australian Wind Engineering Society's 22nd workshop in the same year Australia marks 50 years since Cyclone Tracy cross the Northern Territory coast, destroying  90 per cent of Darwin's homes.

JCU Cyclone Testing Station Director and Business Development Manager Patrick Driscoll said the station was the first Australian testing, education, research, and engagement establishment set up solely for solving problems in wind engineering for low-rise buildings and remains the only one in the country.

‘‘A key person in the evolution of the testing station was JCU Adjunct Professor George Walker who was at the time a senior lecturer in Structural Engineering at JCU,’’ Mr Driscoll said.

‘‘Professor Walker wrote a report on the damage caused by Cyclone Tracy with findings resulting in variations to how we build houses and nationwide changes to how we build to resist strong winds, and we’re privileged to have him deliver a keynote address at this year’s workshop,’’ he said.

JCU Cyclone Testing Station Adjunct Associate Professor Geoff Boughton will present at this year’s workshop and said the team continued its quest to make buildings more resistant to severe wind events.

‘‘It’s significant that JCU is hosting the workshop in the same year the country marks 50 years since Cyclone Tracy decimated the town of Darwin,’’ Dr Boughton said.

‘‘Cyclone Tracy was a watershed moment not only for Australia but the world. As a nation we said we need to do something to keep people safe and Cyclone Tracy was the catalyst for the establishment of the JCU Cyclone Testing Station. And from that time, Cyclone Tracy and the Cyclone Testing Station have been intrinsically linked.’’

Dr Boughton’s presentation will focus on learnings from Cyclone Ilsa, a category 5 cyclone that crossed the Western Australian coast in 2023 impacting remote stations and First Nations’ communities.

‘‘We have learnt from our studies of damage in Cyclone Ilsa that remote communities are very reliant on solar electricity and what really staggered us with Cyclone Ilsa was that of 21 solar power systems in the affected area, only one was functioning. The other 20 were significantly damaged, which confirmed our thinking that something needs to be done quickly to ensure future sustainable energy options are more resilient.

‘‘If a roof hasn’t been strengthened before the solar panels are fitted, there is a chance the solar panels and roof will both be damaged and what’s more concerning, if a solar panel gets free it also has sharp edges and weights more than 10kg which means it can do a lot of damage as wind-borne debris.

‘‘The testing station began working on research to understand the wind loads placed on areas of roofing that sit underneath solar panels in 2017 following assessments of Cyclone Debbie damage.

‘‘You only have to see the speed at which solar panels have been rolled out to understand that we need to come up with a safeguard really quickly and following Cyclone Isla, we’ve accelerated our research.

“Another key learning from TC Ilsa is that you can’t really evacuate remote communities because by the time it is clear you need to, creeks and rivers have risen and it’s too late. Therefore, these communities need at least one accessible and strong building so that no matter how strong a wind event is, there is somewhere safe for people to go.”

JCU Cyclone Testing Station Chief Engineer Dr David Henderson is the longest serving team member and will also present at the workshop.

‘‘My presentation will cover assessment of existing buildings for their suitability as a place of refuge during a tropical cyclone – an important tool for keeping communities safe in a future warmer climate,’’ Dr Henderson said.

‘‘This tool is founded on decades of investigations and research on what makes buildings safe in high wind events.

‘‘Cyclones and other strong wind events are rare, so we have to seize the opportunity to learn from the ones that do happen, and this is exactly what the Cyclone Testing Station does by measuring wind speeds, and assessing and comparing damage to determine if what we are seeing is new and how can we prevent it.

‘‘But this work is business as usual for wind engineers so the opportunity to get together with 50 fellow experts who have different experiences with wind provides a chance for us to learn very quickly from one another and be inspired.

‘’Without support from Geoscience Australia and the Insurance Council of Australia, this year’s workshop would not have been possible. We are grateful we have the support to come together and discuss how we can make Australia safer and more resilient to major wind events – in turn better protecting communities and reducing the cost and impact of extreme weather events.

‘‘Wind engineering has made significant steps towards realising this aim and following major wind events, the vast majority of buildings now remain structurally sound; however, there is lots more work to do.’’


Media enquiries: erin.goldsack@jcu.edu.au