A cyclone warning is in place for coastal areas from Cairns to Mackay as a low-pressure storm heads towards north Queensland.

Evacuation centres in Townsville are preparing to open as a low-pressure storm moves closer to north Queensland.

A cyclone warning is in place for every town and city between Cairns and Mackay on Wednesday as the huge tropical system approaches the coast.

An emergency storm tide alert has been issued for Townsville and the council will open three evacuation centres on Thursday morning.

The system, which was about 515 kilometres east of Cairns on Wednesday afternoon, is forecast to form into a cyclone before it makes landfall on Friday morning.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is warning people to batten down as the storm will likely bring heavy rain and winds up to 120km/h.

“Currently we’re anticipating the cyclone crossing the coast somewhere in the Townsville region, granting that it is a fairly long way out at the moment,” BOM Queensland regional director Rob Webb said.

BOM will issue warnings every three hours.

Gales are already battering coastal areas from Cairns to Mackay.

A king tide of up to 4.12 metres is forecast to hit the coast when the storm reaches land, which could cause dangerous storm surges.

Coastal residents between Innisfail and Hamilton Island are being warned sea levels could rise rapidly on Thursday and Friday, flooding low-lying areas.

Storm tides may also affect coastal residents between Cairns and Innisfail and also between Hamilton Island and St Lawrence.

On Wednesday the Townsville City Council released a map showing where people are likely to be affected by the surge.

Mayor Jenny Hill says three evacuation centres will open for at least three to four hours from 6am (AEST) on Thursday.

“We’re making these available for people who feel they’re at risk,” she told AAP.

She says potential flooding caused by a combination of high winds and king tides on Thursday and Friday morning were of most concern.

Large areas along the north Queensland coast are expected to see daily rainfall totals of 100mm-200mm between Wednesday and Friday, which could cause flooding, particularly in low-lying areas.

A cyclone watch alert is in place for coastal areas from Mackay to St Lawrence and inland to Clermont.

A cyclone warning was cancelled for areas between Port Douglas and Cairns on Wednesday.

Hinchinbrook Shire Council and Cassowary Coast Regional Council mayors urge residents to be prepared.

Cairns far north district acting Chief Superintendent Brett Schafferius had a similar message for Cairns residents.

“We’re never out of the firing line,” he told media on Wednesday.

“I’d urge everyone not to think they’re safe just because it’s heading further south.”

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Lee Johnson urged people living in the zones to prepare their properties and listen to advice from authorities.

“Whilst the advice from the bureau this time is that it will be a low category if it does form, we’re still going to get very, very strong winds, certainly flooding rains and on the coast damaging wave action,” he told reporters.