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Hurricanes and cyclones

Updated: Wed, 13 Nov 2013

At a glanceBack to top

"Hurricane", "cyclone" and "typhoon" are different terms for the same thing:  a revolving tropical storm accompanied by torrential rain and wind speeds exceeding 119 kilometres per hour (74 miles per hour).

The storms can be hundreds of kilometres wide and they bring destructive winds, torrential rain, storm surge and sometimes tornadoes. 

One of the strongest storms ever recorded is Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands of people when it struck the Philippines in November 2013.

Other severe storms include Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar in 2008 leaving nearly 140,000 people dead or missing, and Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and displacing 2.16 million. 

In the Americas and Caribbean the tropical storms are called "hurricanes". In the western Pacific, East Asia and Australia they are "typhoons". And in the Indian Ocean they are "tropical cyclones".

The storm strength varies from Category 1 to 5, the lowest referring to storms with winds of 119-153 kph (74-95 mph) and Category 5 to winds of at least 249 kph (155 mph), according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

But the impact of the storm depends not just on wind speed, but also on where they strike, how much flooding they cause and the quality of the buildings and infrastructure. 

Weather-watchers use satellite images to track tropical storms as they develop, and try to predict when and where one will hit land and at what speed. But storms are unpredictable and can suddenly weaken or swerve off course. 

WIND SPEEDS:

  • Less than 63 kph (39 mph) - tropical depression 
  • More than 63 kph - tropical storm and given a name 
  • More than 119 kph - designated either a hurricane, typhoon, severe tropical cyclone, severe cyclonic storm or tropical cyclone depending where it is in the world

TORNADOES:

Some tropical storms bring with them tornadoes – destructive rotating columns of air which form from a storm cloud and reach towards the ground. These twisting spirals of wind can lift houses off their foundations. 

The tornado ranges from just a few metres across to more than a kilometre, and can last up to an hour or more.

Scientists do not know exactly how they are formed, making them hard to predict. The average warning time is 13 minutes.

WHEN DO TROPICAL STORMS OCCUR?

The cyclone season in the Pacific/South East Asia region runs from May to November. The Americas/Caribbean hurricane season runs from June to November, peaking in August and September. And the cyclone and typhoon season in East Asia, South Pacific and Australia normally runs from November to April. 

In the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, tropical cyclones usually occur from April to June, and September to November. The East Coast of Africa normally experiences tropical cyclones from November to April.

LinksBack to top

The National Hurricane Center of the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a range of helpful material, including an explanation of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale for categorising hurricanes.

Tropical Storm Risk tracks storms worldwide and issues forecasts. You can sign up to receive storm alerts and seasonal forecasts by email.

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