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What is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale is a rubric which rates hurricanes between one and five, depending on their intensity. The scale is intended to roughly predict the amount of expected damage before a hurricane hits land, allowing officials to prepare accordingly. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale is primarily used in North America, and refers to North Pacific and Atlantic hurricanes. In other parts of the world, different descriptions and scales may be used.

The design of the scale began in 1969, when Herbert Saffir was commissioned to examine the impact of hurricanes on low cost housing. While Saffir was performing his research, he realized that there was no uniform scale for describing hurricane conditions, which made it very difficult to analyze information well. He came up with a hurricane scale roughly modeled on the Richter scale, using wind speed as a guide to describe hurricanes.

Saffir submitted the hurricane scale to Bob Simpson, the director of the United States National Hurricane Center. Simpson made a few changes to the scale, incorporating the potential for storm surge as well as wind speed, and the end result was named for both men, recognizing their equal contributions. By looking at hurricanes while they are still offshore, the hurricane center can assess where they fit on the scale, thus allowing people on land to estimate how severe the damage may be. The estimates of damage severity are the result of decades of compiled data about actual damage during hurricanes.

The most mild hurricane on the scale is a category one. A category one hurricane will inflict minimal damage, potentially uprooting small trees and poorly installed signs. Mobile homes and rickety structures may also be at risk during a category one. A category five, on the other hand, has winds in excess of 156 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour), and it will cause “severe” damage to most structures. There is no category higher than a six, since the hurricane scale is intended to predict damage, rather than quantifying severity as the Richter scale does.

Very few hurricanes reach a category five, and when they do, it tends to be an event of note. The high winds of these hurricanes are accompanied by a serious storm surge, which can cause severe flooding compounded by heavy rain. Hurricane Katrina was a well known example of a category five hurricane, as was the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in Florida. It is highly unusual to see more than one or two category five hurricanes, although the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season proved to be the unfortunate exception to this rule.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale?

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale is a classification system that categorizes hurricanes into five categories based on their sustained wind speeds. Developed by engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson, the scale ranges from Category 1 (least severe) to Category 5 (most severe), with each category correlating to potential damage and storm surge levels.

How does the Saffir-Simpson Scale measure hurricane intensity?

The scale measures hurricane intensity by sustained wind speed. Category 1 hurricanes have winds of 74-95 mph, Category 2 at 96-110 mph, Category 3 at 111-129 mph, Category 4 at 130-156 mph, and Category 5 with winds exceeding 157 mph. These thresholds are critical for emergency preparedness and response planning.

What kind of damage can be expected from a Category 3 hurricane?

A Category 3 hurricane, classified as a major hurricane, can cause devastating damage. According to the National Hurricane Center, these storms can result in the removal of roof decking and gable ends, damage to doors and windows, and significant destruction to mobile homes. Electricity and water availability can be disrupted for days to weeks.

Are storm surge and rainfall included in the Saffir-Simpson Scale?

No, the Saffir-Simpson Scale does not include storm surge and rainfall levels. It solely categorizes hurricanes based on sustained wind speeds. However, storm surge and rainfall are significant factors in a hurricane's overall impact and are often forecasted separately by meteorological agencies to assess flood risks.

Can the Saffir-Simpson Scale predict the total destruction a hurricane will cause?

The Saffir-Simpson Scale is not designed to predict the total destruction a hurricane will cause. It focuses on wind intensity, which is a major factor in damage potential, but does not account for other destructive elements like rainfall, storm surge, or the size and speed of the storm, all of which can influence the overall impact.

Has the Saffir-Simpson Scale been updated since its inception?

Yes, the Saffir-Simpson Scale has been updated since its inception. In 2009, the National Hurricane Center removed pressure and storm surge ranges from the scale to emphasize wind speed as the sole factor for categorization. This change aimed to reduce confusion and provide clearer communication about the potential wind-related impacts of hurricanes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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