By Morag MacKinnon
PERTH, February 24 (Reuters) - Ports in Australia's Pilbara region, through which almost half of the world's seaborne iron ore is shipped, were due to close on Sunday ahead of a tropical cyclone expected to cross the coast by Wednesday.
Port Hedland and Dampier ports were being closed and all vessels sent out to sea in preparation for Cyclone Rusty, which is forecast to bring strong winds and heavy rain to the area early in the week.
"We expect to be fully closed by this evening", Port Hedland Harbour Master John Finch told Reuters around 1700 local time (0700 GMT). Dampier is expected to be fully closed by sunset on Monday, Harbour Master John Fewings said in a statement.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said Rusty, currently a Category 1 cyclone, was estimated to be some 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of Port Hedland on Sunday afternoon local time and moving slowly south at 8 km per hour. The slow pace of the cyclone indicates that it will bring higher than usual rainfall and cause significant flooding, the bureau added.
"There is a high risk that it will cross the coast as a severe tropical cyclone on Tuesday or Wednesday," the bureau said.
Cyclone Rusty is the latest to form off Australia's far western Indian Ocean coastline and threatens to bring mining and oil and gas production to a standstill.
The area holds shipping terminals at Port Hedland, where BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and Atlas (KOSDAQ: 023890.KQ - news) Iron Ltd are forecast to ship more than 275 million tonnes of iron ore this year.
The ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert, about 200 km south of Port Hedland are used by Australia's biggest iron ore miner Rio Tinto . Rio is targeting shipment of 260 million tonnes of ore through these ports this year.
The northwestern region is also home to two of the country's largest gas production facilities, Woodside's Northwest Shelf and Pluto liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants.