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Typhoons & Hurricanes: How They Work, What They Do, and Why They Matter

Updated on November 16, 2013

What's in a Name?

Why are some hurricanes called typhoons and some typhoons called hurricanes? It all depends on geography.

Typhoons are generally referenced in countries that receive the storms from the Pacific Ocean. Locations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia are the primary points of landfall for storms that go by this name.

Hurricanes are the name attributed to the same weather effect, but when they come in from the Atlantic Ocean, so when a storm makes landfall in the Southeastern United States or the Gulf of Mexico, it is generally called a hurricane.

While each specific name holds cultural and regionally specific relevance, the basic scientific principles remains true for both types of storms.

Introduction: Water & Wind

Typhoons and hurricanes are two names for the same weather phenomenon, a violent and oftentimes deadly storm that begins as a mild tropical disturbance, but can grow into an immense and impressive force.

In the midst of a shifting climate, and in light of more and more news coverage regarding this type of weather, having the facts behind these events can prove important and helps one better understand the news and science presented in the media.

Let's take a look at what hurricanes and typhoons are all about.

Hurricane Formation

A diagram depicting the forces at work within a hurricane.
A diagram depicting the forces at work within a hurricane. | Source

How Does the Storm Form?

Tropical storms all start out the same way, with development of a low-pressure center in the atmosphere. Here is how it breaks down:

In nature, there are some natural constants regarding warm and cold air that are essential to understanding the formation of storms like hurricanes. Warm air likes to rise up as it heats, the various molecules spreading further apart and allowing the air to float ever higher. This warm air is considered low-pressure.

Of course, when that warm air floats up into the sky, cooler air wants to fill in the space where it once was. This colder, high-pressure air ends up camping underneath the warmer air. This is happening all the time, all across the globe. But when a few little extra variables are thrown in, you can have a hurricane form.

Let's say we are in the warm ocean of the Caribbean, enjoying the sunshine. Based off what we now know about low-pressure, we can guess that warm ocean air is going to rise up into the sky. As it does this, it begins to create clouds and rain, due to all the moisture in the warmed up air.

The rain falls to the ocean, and makes the air that rushed in behind the previous wave (the high pressure, colder air) even warmer than before. This cycle keeps feeding itself and feeding itself. Eventually becoming faster and faster which begins to create the high winds these storms are known for.

These winds make the storm move even quicker, creating more hot air, and thus fueling the storm even further. Finally, to top it all off, high in the atmosphere winds of the same speed as down below begin whipping at the top of the storm cloud, making sure to siphon off some of the heat that is building up, almost like cleaning out the ashes of a fireplace, so the open flame can continue burning right along.

Eventually that steady upwelling of warm air creates an eye of the storm, and as more clouds form and smaller storms continue to feed the big guy in the center, the distinctive 'swirling' of the storm occurs.

As a side note, this 'swirling' is caused by a natural occurrence called the Coriolis Effect this is the force of the Earth's rotation on many everyday objects that move across the surface of our planet, including hurricanes.

A Storm on Approach

A view of Hurricane Daniel in 2006.
A view of Hurricane Daniel in 2006.

Making Landfall: The Power and The Fury

Many tropical storms and the more powerful hurricanes and typhoons lead a brief existence in the ocean, eventually dying out when the complicated natural systems discussed in the last section start breaking down.

But some storms hit land and cause massive destruction, take many lives, and sometimes permanently alter the geography of the afflicted locales.

But why do they cause such high levels of damage? It can be broken down into three main reasons: wind, rain, and the storm surge.

  • Wind - A tropical storm becomes a hurricane once it can sustain winds of 74 miles per hour. This alone can cause some slight damage. However, large 'canes and typhoons can have winds over 155 miles per hour, and recently storms have exceeded 175 miles per hour. With winds this high, buildings can be toppled and people can be seriously injured or killed. When you add that these winds can last for extended periods of time, the risk of such a storm are evident.
  • Rain - As a weather event that formed in the ocean, hurricanes and typhoons contains much water and use water as a resource to continue moving. As such, when they hit land, heavy and dangerous rain falls are common and expected. Flooding can occur miles away from where the hurricane first struck land, and the damages and loss of life is further compounded when the storms cause rivers to breach their banks or dams to fail.
  • Storm Surge - As a hurricane approaches land, the collected ocean water it has been using as a fuel source is often released, causing huge waves, also known as storm surges, to hit the coastline. This is often one of the most destructive aspects of a storm, as the wave of water can strike right through buildings and cause massive damage in its wake.

When combined, the wind, rain and storm surge can decimate an area, and make the situations for those within the area quite precarious.

The Danger Zone

Have you ever been caught in a hurricane or typhoon?

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Why Does It Matter?

The amount of storms held every year and the severity of said storms matter for a few reasons, and they affect those living in landlocked areas much as they do those living along coast lines.

Since these types of storms are caused primarily by warm water creating low-pressure systems, the warmer the oceans become, the more often the storms may hit.

As such, hurricanes and typhoons have become a major scientific benchmark for reviewing and studying the effects of climate change on global weather patterns.

In the years and decades to come, reviewing these storms will become more and more important, especially as ocean levels rise and temperatures increase. Studying the storms now, can help save lives later on down the road.


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    • conradofontanilla profile image

      conradofontanilla 4 years ago from Philippines

      Last week, Haiyan, the strongest super typhoon in the world this year hit the Philippines. It has wrought destruction of property, houses, buildings, and crops. It has left hundreds dead and missing. There is now a threat of widespread diseases. Relief goods are still inadequate. Communications broke down and has not yet been restored.

      We should mitigate climate change, global warming, as soon as we can.