December 21, 2016 / 8:02 AM / 8 months ago

Australia's first cyclone of season heads for Pilbara iron ore belt

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A tropical low in the Indian Ocean has intensified into Australia's first cyclone of the 2016-2017 summer season and could make landfall over the weekend, weather forecasters said on Wednesday.

Tropical Cyclone Yvette will be slow moving before tracking south-eastward toward the sparsely populated coastal Pilbara iron ore belt in Western Australia state over the Christmas weekend, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

At 0700 GMT the storm was 810 km (500 miles) northwest of Port Hedland, home to the world's biggest iron ore export terminal, on Australia's northwest coast.

A spokesman for Pilbara Ports Authority said the Port Hedland terminal was so far unaffected and remained open.

The low was upgraded to a category 1 cyclone after sustained winds were recorded near the center of 75 kmh (45 mph), with wind gusts to 100 kmh (62 mph), the bureau said, adding by Friday the cyclone was forecast to become category 2.

While category 1 or category 2 cyclones are at the lower end of the 1-5 intensity scale, they still pack enough punch to cause damage and delay port and mining operations.

Cyclone Stan was a category 2 when it slammed the west Australian coast on January 16, 2016, and was later blamed by BHP for lower-than-expected iron ore production.

BHP Billiton is the largest user of the Port Hedland's port, followed by Fortescue Metals Group and Atlas Iron. The four companies shipped a combined 41.2 million tonnes of iron ore through the port in November.

Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Michael Perry

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