What You Need to Know About Cyclones in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Tropical cyclones that develop in the South Pacific have a risk of affecting the Cook Islands. If you are visiting the island during the cyclone season, November to April, then there is a small risk of experiencing a cyclone. Due to the danger of this type of extreme weather event, it’s best to know how to prepare for a cyclone and know what to do if a cyclone occurs while you’re visiting the islands. Nevertheless, the Cook Islands is well-prepared with emergency procedures should a cyclone occur.
For more information on the Cook Islands’ climate, see Rarotonga & the Cook Islands Weather, Seasons & Climate + Weather by Month.
When is the Cyclone Season in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands?
The cyclone season in the Cook Islands and the South Pacific starts in November and ends in April. This is during the Cook Islands’ summer season, otherwise known as the “wet season”. The peak months for cyclone risk are the months December, January and February. There is also a higher risk of cyclone activity during an El Nino year.
Cyclone Warnings in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
The weather in the Cook Islands is well monitored by the Cook Islands Meteorological Service, the New Zealand MetService and NWFC Nadi, so cyclones are reported as soon as there are signs that they are beginning to develop. It’s highly unlikely that cyclones will take the country by surprise, which gives you time to prepare.
How Cyclones are Reported
The first sign of a cyclone forming might come from a “tropical depression”. Meteorologists will keep an eye on any depression that becomes a storm if its wind speeds reach 65-120km/h (40-73 mph). If the wind speeds continue increasing, the cyclone will be declared and given a name. Cyclones affecting the Cook Islands in the past have been called “Martin” and “Cody”, for example. When a cyclone is given a name, it is widely reported in the media across the Cook Islands and the rest of the South Pacific.
Cyclones are given a category to indicate how severe they are, where Category 1 is the weakest (wind speeds of 88-125km/h / 55-78mph) and Category 5 is the strongest (wind speeds greater than 250km/h / 155mph).
Meteorologists will keep an eye on the movement of the cyclone, drawing up a five-day forecast outlining the path that they think it will take. The path prediction is usually quite broad, as an exact path is difficult to determine, but this gives nations time to prepare. Updates are given as more data becomes available.
The Dangers of Cyclones
Why do you need to prepare for a cyclone? The severe gale force winds can cause significant damage to weaker structures in the Cook Islands, for instance, buildings in villages. There may also be damage to power lines causing blackouts, damage to crops and trees, and dangerous airborne debris. Another danger can be contaminated tap water, although we recommend that you always filter (with a Lifestraw bottle, for instance) or boil tap water in the Cook Islands unless you know your accommodation is treating the water – see Is the Water Safe to Drink in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?
It’s important to note that cyclone damage is quite localised, significantly affecting the areas in its path rather than the entire country. For example, cyclones in the past have only damaged a single or a couple of islands in the Cook Islands, rather than every island in the Cooks.
How to Prepare for a Cyclone
The first way to be prepared for a cyclone in the Cook Islands is to be aware of weather warnings during your stay. If you’re visiting the Cook Islands during the cyclone season, between November and April, be sure to check weather reports regularly.
Given the nature of cyclones, it’s difficult to determine exactly how much damage they will cause. With this in mind, it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared.
Ask your accommodation provider what is the cyclone procedure for the building if visiting during the cyclone season. They will know which is the strongest part of the building in the likely scenario that you need to stay where you are during a cyclone.
Have an emergency kit at the ready, such as clothes, food and water for three days. It’s also useful to have a battery-operated radio (or spare batteries for your smartphone, for instance, where you can listen to the radio), as well as a torch with spare batteries. Make sure you know the emergency number for the Cook Islands: 999.
Keep following the news and progress of the cyclone through radio, TV, text messages (you have to sign up for text alerts) and online news outlets. You’ll be informed if evacuation is necessary and where to evacuate to. Official advice will be given through local radio, TV and text messages. Learn more about getting a Cook Islands phone number in The Best SIM Card in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for Travellers.
A History of Cyclones in the Cook Islands
Compared to some other South Pacific nations, the Cook Islands seemingly has a more active history of cyclones. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the country is widespread, scattered over 2,200,000 km² (850,000 sq mi) of ocean.
In January 2022, Cyclone Cody caused flooding to Rarotonga.
In February 2010, Cyclone Pat damaged around 78% of homes on Aitutaki and destroyed around 72 buildings.
Cyclone Oli caused flooding in the Northern Group in January 2008.
The Cook Islands saw minor beach erosion due to Cyclone Arthur in January 2007.
The 2005 Cyclones
In February 2005, the Cook Islands experienced gale-force winds from Cyclone Meena, Cyclone Nancy caused power cuts and house damage on Atiu, and Cyclone Olaf damaged homes and businesses on the western side of Rarotonga. Again in 2005, homes in the northern islands of Pukapuka and Nassau were seriously impacted by Cycle Percy.
Cyclone Trina affected Mangaia in early December 2001, causing flooding and damage to the agricultural sector.
Cyclone Martin (October – 5 November 1997) formed at the end of October and dissipated in early November causing significant damage to the Northern Cook Islands and 28 deaths across the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. It was considered one of the worst cyclones to affect the South Pacific in the 20th Century.
Cyclone Val narrowly missed the Cook Islands in December 1991, causing gale-force winds and damage to crops.
Cyclones in the Cook Islands, Month-by-Month
- Ocotober – 1997 (Cyclone Martin)
- November – 1890, 1927, 1941, 1968 and 1997 (Cyclone Martin)
- December – 1831, 1842, 1848, 1883, 1925, 1930, 1940, 1943, 1962, 1967, 1991 (Cyclone Val) and 2001 (Cyclone Trina)
- January – 1845, 1865, 1905, 1914, 1941, 1944, 1950, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1966, 2007 (Cyclone Arthur) and 2008 (Cyclone Oli)
- February – 1839, 1840, 1877, 1882, 1889, 1897, 1906, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1950, 1958, 1962, 1990, 2005 (Cyclone Meena, Cyclone Nancy, Cyclone Olaf and Cyclone Pat) and 2010 (Cyclone Pat)
- March – 1846, 1866, 1867, 1869, 1905, 1926, 1943, 1961 and 1963
- April – 1850 and 1926.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cyclones in the Cook Islands
Here are some of the internet’s most asked questions regarding cyclones in the Cook Islands. They might answer yours too!
Do the Cook Islands Get Cyclones?
Yes, the Cook Islands has had cyclones in the past and is at risk of being affected by cyclones during the South Pacific cyclone season, from November to April.
What are the Natural Disasters in Cook Islands?
Natural disasters that could affect the Cook Islands include cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Natural disasters that have affected the Cook Islands in recent history, however, are only limited to cyclones and tsunami warnings.
Does Rarotonga Get Hurricanes?
Yes, Rarotonga does get hurricanes, locally known as cyclones. Hurricanes seriously affecting Rarotonga, however, are quite rare.
More About Cyclones in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete guide to cyclones in the Cook Islands and how to prepare. For more about natural disasters and safety in the Cooks, take a look at the following guides:
- The Guide to Tsunamis in the Cook Islands
- Is it Safe to Travel to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? – Cook Islands Safety Tips
- Rarotonga & the Cook Islands Weather, Seasons & Climate + Weather by Month
Finally, get all of the tips required for a smooth getaway to the Cook Islands from the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.