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What is the Difference Between a Hurricane, Cyclone, and Typhoon?

Amy Pollick
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones are different names for the same type of storm. A tropical cyclone is called a hurricane in the North Atlantic Ocean, South Pacific Ocean, or the Northeast Pacific Ocean on the eastern side of the dateline. A typhoon occurs in the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline. In other parts of the world, these storms are called severe tropical cyclones.

A hurricane, then, is a cyclonic storm with maximum sustained winds over 74 mph (64 knots; 119 kph). These storms are then further classed according to strength by the Saffir-Simpson Scale. There are five strength categories, with a Category 5 storm rating maximum sustained winds over 156 mph (136 knots; 251 kph).

This type of severe storm generally starts as an organized band of convection, or thunderstorms, called a tropical wave. When conditions are favorable, the wave starts to further organize and strengthen. Convection increases, and the wave starts taking on cyclonic characteristics. If strengthening continues, it develops an eye and eyewall and soon becomes a hurricane. Favorable conditions for storm development include the system being over very warm water and in an environment with little wind shear. Wind shear is bad for a storm because because it sends winds in the opposite direction, thereby inhibiting the cyclone’s formation.

A cyclone itself is often a generic name for any kind of violent windstorm, and particularly in the Midwestern United States, is the name for a tornado. A tornado and a hurricane are two entirely different storms, however. A tornado is usually the result of a mesocyclone, or severe thunderstorm, over land, although a tropical cyclone that makes landfall can spawn tornadoes. They are also smaller, short-lived storms, while a hurricane covers several hundred square miles or kilometers and may last for several days over water.

The hurricane quickly loses strength when it makes landfall because it is deprived of the heat and moisture from the ocean water keeping it alive. One that passes over land and goes back into the ocean, however, may regenerate.

Although most people think of a tropical cyclone as being primarily a wind storm, its real damage is usually caused by flooding. This was evident in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts. The storm had dropped to a Category 3 by landfall, but the storm surge in front of it was driven by the storm when it was a Category 5. The storm surge was well over 20 feet (6 meters) in some areas, and wiped out thousands of homes in its path.

The National Weather Service’s Tropical Prediction Center tracks storms in the North and East Atlantic, and in the Eastern Pacific Oceans. Their Web site provides a wealth of information on the formation, tracking and forecasting storms, as well as statistics from past years.

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Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at All Things Nature. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By anon300566 — On Oct 30, 2012

In Australia, all cyclonic oceanic storms are known as "Cyclones", "Tropical Cyclones", or "Severe Tropical Cyclones".

By anon202399 — On Aug 02, 2011

"Hurricane" comes from the Arawak name of a primary god of wind, "Huracan", which was later incorporated into Spanish, and then English.

By anon167326 — On Apr 12, 2011

Finally, i know the difference.

By anon156327 — On Feb 26, 2011

I think the reason for the different names is historical. If I recall correctly, 'typhoon' comes from Chinese Tai Fun or some such, which means 'great wind'. Presumably, western sailors encountering hurricanes in the China Sea didn't recognize them as such, and heard the Chinese referring to them by this term. When they were later recognized as such, the term had already stuck.

'Cyclone' refers to the fact that the storm spins. A hurricane is basically a massive storm traveling clockwise or anticlockwise (depending on which hemisphere it's in), and it has a calm(er) inner part called the 'eye'. It's shaped like a torus - kind-of a donut, really massive though.

A tornado (from Spanish - a thing that is turning) - is a much smaller storm, typically funnel-shaped and faster-moving, not having a distinct eye as such, or rather, the eye is proportional to the height and size of the tornado. A tornado at sea is called a 'sea spout'.

I'm not sure where the term 'hurricane' comes from. I think it's spanish too, presumably because it was used to refer to such storms in the Spanish Main.

So: Cyclone is the general term, Hurricane is the Atlantic/South Pacific term, and Typhoon is the north Pacific term.

By anon148767 — On Feb 02, 2011

Thank you for the explanation. Thank you for taking the time to answer. --Forcier

By anon120062 — On Oct 20, 2010

Excellent explanation and response to my question! I appreciate it.

By anon101713 — On Aug 04, 2010

thank you for the help.

By anon91344 — On Jun 21, 2010

thanks for the help!

By anon84221 — On May 14, 2010

@3: They only spin in different directions because of what hemisphere they are on. They both turn in the direction of the earth - counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

By anon77746 — On Apr 15, 2010

yes, if they are all the same, why not call it only one name? just a thought.

By anon72775 — On Mar 24, 2010

i think this is very interesting and i wish to browse more of his website!!

By anon42875 — On Aug 24, 2009

I haven't read any of the comments, so my addition is probably already mentioned. The fact is that hurricanes and typhoons, aside from occurring in different locations, also twist in different directions.

By jabuka — On May 15, 2008

I believe cyclones can be further subdivided. A "severe tropical cyclone" is the name given to storms in the Southwest Pacific Ocean west of the 160 degrees E longitude line or Southeast Indian Ocean east of the 90 degree E longitude line. Storms originating in the North Indian Ocean are called "severe cyclonic storms" and those storms in the Southwest Indian Ocean are called "tropical cyclones". Why make it easy and have the same name? ;)

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at All Things...
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