By Tom Westbrook and James Regan
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Port Hedland iron ore terminal will likely reopen on Saturday after Australia's weather bureau cut the forecast strength of a cyclone bearing down on the continent's far northwest, the port's operator said on Friday.
Cyclone Joyce, a Category 1 storm, is holding just off the beaches of Pilbara iron ore belt, prompting the overnight closure of the world's biggest iron ore export terminal, 1,700 km (1,050 miles) north of Perth, as a safety precaution.
Shipping operations are expected to resume at 6 a.m. Saturday (2200 GMT Friday) should weather conditions improve.
The port accounts for over half of Australia's iron ore exports, handling more than a million tonnes a day from the Pilbara iron belt, the majority bound for Chinese steel mills.
The storm is forecast to cross the sparsely populated coast about 250 km northeast from Port Hedland later on Friday. It is no longer expected to reach Category 3, or severe strength, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
The storm is forecast to make landfall later on Friday and is predicted to weaken further as it travels inland.
Port Hedland was cleared of ships and closed on Thursday evening.
The storm is the second to menace Australia's northwest in as many weeks. Cyclone Hilda blew down trees and caused minor damage at Broome last week.
On average, there are 10 to 13 tropical cyclones between November and April in the Australian region, four of which typically cross the coast, data from the bureau shows.
The possibility of a protracted closure at Port Hedland if Cyclone Joyce had intensified failed to stoke iron ore buying, despite China's strong reliance on supplies from Australia.
Iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange were down 2 percent in trading at the Shanghai Futures Exchange, after falling 0.4 percent in the previous session. [IRONORE/]
Iron ore for spot delivery to China's Qingdao port rose 77 cents, or about 1 percent, to $79.08 a ton on Thursday.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Additional reporting by James Regan; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Tom Hogue)