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Tropical cyclone


There are six Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMCs) worldwide. These organizations are designated by the World Meteorological Organization and are responsible for tracking and issuing bulletins, warnings, and advisories about tropical cyclones in their designated areas of responsibility. Additionally, there are six Tropical Cyclone Warning Centres (TCWCs) that provide information to smaller regions. The RSMCs and TCWCs, however, are not the only organizations that provide information about tropical cyclones to the public. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) issues informal advisories in all basins except the Northern Atlantic and Northeastern Pacific. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) issues informal advisories and names for tropical cyclones that approach the Philippines in the Northwestern Pacific. The Canadian Hurricane Centre (CHC) issues advisories on hurricanes and their remnants when they affect Canada.



Worldwide, tropical cyclone activity peaks in late summer, when the difference between temperatures aloft and sea surface temperatures is the greatest. However, each particular basin has its own seasonal patterns. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active.16

In the North Atlantic, a distinct hurricane season occurs from June 1 to November 30, sharply peaking from late August through September.16The statistical peak of the North Atlantic hurricane season is September 10. The Northeast Pacific has a broader period of activity, but in a similar time frame to the Atlantic.17 The Northwest Pacific sees tropical cyclones year-round, with a minimum in February and a peak in early September. In the North Indian basin, storms are most common from April to December, with peaks in May and November.16

In the Southern Hemisphere, tropical cyclone activity begins in late October and ends in May. Southern Hemisphere activity peaks in mid-February to early March.16

Season lengths and seasonal averages16BasinSeason startSeason endTropical Storms
(>34 knots)Tropical Cyclones
(>63 knots)Category 3+ TCs
(>95 knots)Northwest PacificAprilJanuary26.716.98.5South IndianOctoberMay20.610.34.3Northeast PacificMayNovember16.39.04.1North AtlanticJuneNovember10.65.92.0Australia Southwest PacificOctoberMay10.64.81.9North IndianAprilDecember5.42.20.4


Waves in the trade winds in the Atlantic Ocean-areas of converging winds that move along the same track as the prevailing wind-create instabilities in the atmosphere that may lead to the formation of hurricanes.

The formation of tropical cyclones is the topic of extensive ongoing research and is still not fully understood. While six factors appear to be generally necessary, tropical cyclones may occasionally form without meeting all of the following conditions. In most situations, water temperatures of at least 26.5 °C (80 °F) are needed18 down to a depth of at least 50 m (150 feet). Waters of this temperature cause the overlying atmosphere to be unstable enough to sustain convection and thunderstorms.19 Another factor is rapid cooling with height. This allows the release of latent heat, which is the source of energy in a tropical cyclone.18 High humidity is needed, especially in the lower-to-mid troposphere; when there is a great deal of moisture in the atmosphere, conditions are more favorable for disturbances to develop.18 Low amounts of wind shear are needed, as when shear is high, the convection in a cyclone or disturbance will be disrupted, preventing formation of the feedback loop.18 Tropical cyclones generally need to form more than 500 km (310 miles) or 5 degrees of latitude away from the equator. This allows the Coriolis effect to deflect winds blowing towards the low pressure center, causing a circulation.18 Lastly, a formative tropical cyclone needs a pre-existing system of disturbed weather. The system must have some sort of circulation as well as a low pressure center.18


Most tropical cyclones form in a worldwide band of thunderstorm activity called by several names: the Intertropical Discontinuity (ITD), the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), or the monsoon trough. Another important source of atmospheric instability is found in tropical waves, which cause about 85 percent of intense tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean and become most of the tropical cyclones in the Eastern Pacific basin.20

Tropical cyclones originate on the eastern side of oceans, but move west, intensifying as they move. Most of these systems form between 10 and 30 degrees away of the equator, and 87 percent form no farther away than 20 degrees of latitude, north or south. Because the Coriolis effect initiates and maintains tropical cyclone rotation, tropical cyclones rarely form or move within about 5 degrees of the equator, where the Coriolis effect is weakest. However, it is possible for tropical cyclones to form within this boundary as Tropical Storm Vamei did in 2001 and Cyclone Agni in 2004.

Movement and track

Steering winds

Although tropical cyclones are large systems generating enormous energy, their movements over the Earth's surface are controlled by large-scale winds-the streams in the Earth's atmosphere. The path of motion is referred to as a tropical cyclone's track and has been analogized by Dr. Neil Frank, former director of the National Hurricane Center, to "leaves carried along by a stream."21

Tropical systems, while generally located equatorward of the 20th parallel, are steered primarily westward by the east-to-west winds on the equatorward side of the subtropical ridge-a persistent high pressure area over the world's oceans.21 In the tropical North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific oceans, trade winds-another name for the westward-moving wind currents-steer tropical waves westward from the African coast and towards the Caribbean Sea, North America, and ultimately into the central Pacific Ocean before the waves dampen out.20 These waves are the precursors to many tropical cyclones within this region. In the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific (both north and south of the equator), tropical cyclogenesis is strongly influenced by the seasonal movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and the monsoon trough, rather than by easterly waves.

Coriolis effect

Infrared image of Cyclone Monica near peak intensity, showing clockwise rotation due to the Coriolis effect.

The Earth's rotation imparts an acceleration known as the Coriolis Effect, Coriolis Acceleration, or colloquially, Coriolis Force. This acceleration causes cyclonic systems to turn towards the poles in the absence of strong steering currents. The poleward portion of a tropical cyclone contains easterly winds, and the Coriolis effect pulls them slightly more poleward. The westerly winds on the equatorward portion of the cyclone pull slightly towards the equator, but, because the Coriolis effect weakens toward the equator, the net drag on the cyclone is poleward. Thus, tropical cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere usually turn north (before being blown east), and tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere usually turn south (before being blown east) when no other effects counteract the Coriolis effect.

The Coriolis effect also initiates cyclonic rotation, but it is not the driving force that brings this rotation to high speeds. These speeds instead result from conservation of angular momentum. This means that air is drawn in from an area much larger than the cyclone such that the tiny rotational speed (originally imparted by the Coriolis effect) is magnified greatly as the air is drawn into the low pressure center.

Interaction with the mid-latitude westerlies

Storm track of Typhoon Ioke, showing recurvature off the Japanese coast in 2006

When a tropical cyclone crosses the subtropical ridge axis, its general track around the high-pressure area is deflected significantly by winds moving towards the general low-pressure area to its north. When the cyclone track becomes strongly poleward with an easterly component, the cyclone has begun recurvature.22 A typhoon moving through the Pacific Ocean towards Asia, for example, will recurve offshore of Japan to the north, and then to the northeast, if the typhoon encounters winds blowing northeastward toward a low-pressure system passing over China or Siberia. Many tropical cyclones are eventually forced toward the northeast by extratropical cyclones, which move from west to east to the north of the subtropical ridge.


Officially, landfall is when a storm's center (the center of its circulation, not its edge) crosses the coastline. Storm conditions may be experienced on the coast and inland hours before landfall; in fact, a tropical cyclone can launch its strongest winds over land, yet not make landfall; if this occurs, then it is said that the storm made a direct hit on the coast. Due to this definition, the landfall area experiences half of a land-bound storm by the time the actual landfall occurs. For emergency preparedness, actions should be timed from when a certain wind speed or intensity of rainfall will reach land, not from when landfall will occur.23



A tropical cyclone can cease to have tropical characteristics through several different ways. One such way is if it moves over land, thus depriving it of the warm water it needs to power itself, quickly losing strength. Most strong storms lose their strength very rapidly after landfall and become disorganized areas of low pressure within a day or two, or evolve into extratropical cyclones. While there is a chance a tropical cyclone could regenerate it managed to get back over open warm water, if it remains over mountains for even a short time, it can rapidly lose its structure. Many storm fatalities occur in mountainous terrain, as the dying storm unleashes torrential rainfall, leading to deadly floods and mudslides, similar to those that happened with Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Additionally, dissipation can occur if a storm remains in the same area of ocean for too long, mixing the upper 30 meters (100 feet) of water. This occurs because the cyclone draws up colder water from deeper in the sea through upwelling, and causes the water surface to become too cool to support the storm. Without warm surface water, the storm cannot survive.

A tropical cyclone can dissipate when it moves over waters significantly below 26.5 °C. This will cause the storm to lose its tropical characteristics (i.e., thunderstorms near the center and warm core) and become a remnant low pressure area, which can persist for several days. This is the main dissipation mechanism in the Northeast Pacific ocean. Weakening or dissipation can occur if it experiences vertical wind shear, causing the convection and heat engine to move away from the center; this normally ceases development of a tropical cyclone.24 Additionally, its interaction with the main belt of the Westerlies, by means of merging with a nearby frontal zone, can cause tropical cyclones to evolve into extratropical cyclones. Even after a tropical cyclone is said to be extratropical or dissipated, it can still have tropical storm force (or occasionally hurricane force) winds and drop several inches of rainfall. In the Pacific ocean and Atlantic ocean, such tropical-derived cyclones of higher latitudes can be violent and may occasionally remain at hurricane-force wind speeds when they reach the west coast of North America. These phenomena can also affect Europe, where they are known as European windstorms; Hurricane Iris's extratropical remnants became one in 1995.25 Additionally, a cyclone can merge with another area of low pressure, becoming a larger area of low pressure. This can strengthen the resultant system, although it may no longer be a tropical cyclone.24

Artificial dissipation

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States government attempted to weaken hurricanes through Project Stormfury by seeding selected storms with silver iodide. It was thought that the seeding would cause supercooled water in the outer rainbands to freeze, causing the inner eyewall to collapse and thus reducing the winds. The winds of Hurricane Debbie-a hurricane seeded in Project Stormfury-dropped as much as 30%, but Debby regained its strength after each of two seeding forays. In an earlier episode in 1947, disaster struck when a hurricane east of Jacksonville, Florida promptly changed its course after being seeded, and smashed into Savannah, Georgia.26 Because there was so much uncertainty about the behavior of these storms, the federal government would not approve seeding operations unless the hurricane had a less than 10 percent chance of making landfall within 48 hours, greatly reducing the number of possible test storms. The project was dropped after it was discovered that eyewall replacement cycles occur naturally in strong hurricanes, casting doubt on the result of the earlier attempts. Today, it is known that silver iodide seeding is not likely to have an effect because the amount of supercooled water in the rainbands of a tropical cyclone is too low.27

Other approaches have been suggested over time, including cooling the water under a tropical cyclone by towing icebergs into the tropical oceans.28 Other ideas range from covering the ocean in a substance that inhibits evaporation,29 dropping large quantities of ice into the eye at very early stages of development (so that the latent heat is absorbed by the ice, instead of being converted to kinetic energy that would feed the positive feedback loop),28 or blasting the cyclone apart with nuclear weapons.10 Project Cirrus even involved throwing dry ice on a cyclone.30 These approaches all suffer from the same flaw: tropical cyclones are simply too large for any of them to be practical.31


The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi. Katrina was the costliest tropical cyclone in United States history.

Tropical cyclones out at sea cause large waves, heavy rain, and high winds, disrupting international shipping and, at times, causing shipwrecks. Tropical cyclones stir up water, leaving a cool wake behind them,13 which causes the region to be less favorable for subsequent tropical cyclones. On land, strong winds can damage or destroy vehicles, buildings, bridges, and other outside objects, turning loose debris into deadly flying projectiles. The storm surge, or the increase in sea level due to the cyclone, is typically the worst effect from landfalling tropical cyclones, historically resulting in 90 percent of tropical cyclone deaths.32 The broad rotation of a landfalling tropical cyclone, and vertical wind shear at its periphery, spawns tornadoes. Tornadoes can also be spawned as a result of eyewall mesovortices, which persist until landfall.33

Within the last two centuries, tropical cyclones have been responsible for the deaths of about 1.9 million persons worldwide. Large areas of standing water caused by flooding lead to infection, as well as contributing to mosquito-borne illnesses. Crowded evacuees in shelters increase the risk of disease propagation. Tropical cyclones significantly interrupt infrastructure, leading to power outages, bridge destruction, and hamper reconstruction efforts.32

Although cyclones take an enormous toll in lives and personal property, they may be important factors in the precipitation regimes of places they impact, as they may bring much-needed precipitation to otherwise dry regions.34 Tropical cyclones also help maintain the global heat balance by moving warm, moist tropical air to the middle latitudes and polar regions. The storm surge and winds of hurricanes may be destructive to human-made structures, but they also stir up the waters of coastal estuaries, which are typically important fish breeding locales. Tropical cyclone destruction spurs redevelopment, greatly increasing local property values.35

Observation and forecasting


Sunset view of Hurricane Isidore's rainbands photographed at 7,000 feet.

Intense tropical cyclones pose a particular observation challenge. As they are a dangerous oceanic phenomenon and are relatively small, weather stations are rarely available on the site of the storm itself. Surface observations are generally available only if the storm is passing over an island or a coastal area, or if there is a nearby ship. Usually, real-time measurements are taken in the periphery of the cyclone, where conditions are less catastrophic and its true strength cannot be evaluated. For this reason, there are teams of meteorologists that move into the path of tropical cyclones to help evaluate their strength at the point of landfall.

Tropical cyclones far from land are tracked by weather satellites capturing visible and infrared images from space, usually at half-hour to quarter-hour intervals. As a storm approaches land, it can be observed by land-based Doppler radar. Radar plays a crucial role around landfall because it shows a storm's location and intensity minute by minute.

In-situ measurements, in real-time, can be taken by sending specially equipped reconnaissance flights into the cyclone. In the Atlantic basin, these flights are regularly flown by United States government hurricane hunters.36 The aircraft used are WC-130 Hercules and WP-3D Orions, both four-engine turboprop cargo aircraft. These aircraft fly directly into the cyclone and take direct and remote-sensing measurements. The aircraft also launch GPS dropsondes inside the cyclone. These sondes measure temperature, humidity, pressure, and especially winds between flight level and the ocean's surface. A new era in hurricane observation began when a remotely piloted Aerosonde, a small drone aircraft, was flown through Tropical Storm Ophelia as it passed Virginia's Eastern Shore during the 2005 hurricane season. A similar mission was also completed successfully in the western Pacific ocean. This demonstrated a new way to probe the storms at low altitudes that human pilots seldom dare.


A general decrease in error trends in tropical cyclone path prediction is evident since the 1970s

Because of the forces that affect tropical cyclone tracks, accurate track predictions depend on determining the position and strength of high- and low-pressure areas, and predicting how those areas will change during the life of a tropical system. The deep layer mean flow is considered to be the best tool in determining track direction and speed. If storms are significantly sheared, use of wind speed measurements at a lower altitude, such as at the 700 hpa pressure surface (3000 meters or 10000 feet above sea level) will produce better predictions. High-speed computers and sophisticated simulation software allow forecasters to produce computer models that predict tropical cyclone tracks based on the future position and strength of high- and low-pressure systems. Combining forecast models with increased understanding of the forces that act on tropical cyclones, as well as with a wealth of data from Earth-orbiting satellites and other sensors, scientists have increased the accuracy of track forecasts over recent decades. However, scientists say they are less skillful at predicting the intensity of tropical cyclones.37 They attribute the lack of improvement in intensity forecasting to the complexity of tropical systems and an incomplete understanding of factors that affect their development.

Classifications, terminology, and naming

Intensity classifications

Tropical cyclones are classified into three main groups, based on intensity: tropical depressions, tropical storms, and a third group of more intense storms, whose name depends on the region. For example, if a tropical storm in the Northwestern Pacific reaches hurricane-strength winds on the Beaufort scale, it is referred to as a typhoon; if a tropical storm passes the same benchmark in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, or in the Atlantic, it is called a hurricane. Neither "hurricane" nor "typhoon" is used in the South Pacific.

Additionally, as indicated in the table below, each basin uses a separate system of terminology, making comparisons between different basins difficult. In the Pacific Ocean, hurricanes from the Central North Pacific sometimes cross the International Date Line into the Northwest Pacific, becoming typhoons (such as Hurricane/Typhoon Ioke in 2006); on rare occasions, the reverse will occur.38 It should also be noted that typhoons with sustained winds greater than 130 knots (240 km/h or 150 mph) are called Super Typhoons by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.39

A tropical depression is an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of less than 17 m/s (33 kt, 38 mph, or 62 km/h). It has no eye and does not typically have the organization or the spiral shape of more powerful storms. However, it is already a low-pressure system, hence the name "depression." The practice of the Philippines is to name tropical depressions from their own naming convention when the depressions are within the Philippines' area of responsibility.40

A tropical storm is an organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds between 17 and 32 m/s (34-63 kt, 39-73 mph, or 62-117 km/h). At this point, the distinctive cyclonic shape starts to develop, although an eye is not usually present. Government weather services, other than the Philippines, first assign names to systems that reach this intensity (thus the term named storm).

A hurricane or typhoon (sometimes simply referred to as a tropical cyclone, as opposed to a depression or storm) is a system with sustained winds of at least 33 m/s (64 kt, 74 mph, or 118 km/h). A cyclone of this intensity tends to develop an eye, an area of relative calm (and lowest atmospheric pressure) at the center of circulation. The eye is often visible in satellite images as a small, circular, cloud-free spot. Surrounding the eye is the eyewall, an area about 16-80 km (10-50 mi) wide in which the strongest thunderstorms and winds circulate around the storm's center. Maximum sustained winds in the strongest tropical cyclones have been estimated at about 85 m/s (165 kt, 190 mph, 305 km/h).41

Tropical Cyclone Classifications (all winds are 10-minute averages)Beaufort scale10-minute sustained winds (knots)N Indian Ocean
IMDSW Indian Ocean
BOMSW Pacific
FMSNW Pacific
JMANW Pacific
JTWCNE Pacific &
N Atlantic
NHC & CPHC0-6<28DepressionTrop. DisturbanceTropical LowTropical DepressionTropical DepressionTropical DepressionTropical Depression728-29Deep DepressionDepression30-33Tropical StormTropical Storm8-934-47Cyclonic StormModerate Tropical StormTrop. Cyclone (1)Tropical CycloneTropical Storm1048-55Severe Cyclonic StormSevere Tropical StormTropical Cyclone (2)Severe Tropical Storm1156-63TyphoonHurricane (1)1264-72Very Severe Cyclonic StormTropical CycloneSevere Tropical Cyclone (3)Typhoon73-85Hurricane (2)86-89Severe Tropical Cyclone (4)Major Hurricane (3)90-99Intense Tropical Cyclone100-106Major Hurricane (4)107-114Severe Tropical Cyclone (5)115-119Very Intense Tropical CycloneSuper Typhoon>120Super Cyclonic StormMajor Hurricane (5)

Origin of storm terms

The word typhoon used today in the Northwest Pacific, has two possible and equally plausible origins. The first is from the Chinese 大風 (Cantonese: daaih fūng; Mandarin: dà fēng) which means "great wind." (The Chinese term as 颱風 or 台风 táifēng, and 台風 taifū in Japanese, has an independent origin traceable variously to 風颱, 風篩 or 風癡 hongthai, going back to Song 宋 (960-1278) and Yuan 元 (1260-1341) dynasties. The first record of the character 颱 appeared in the 1685 edition of Summary of Taiwan 臺灣記略).42

Alternatively, the word may be derived from Urdu, Persian and Arabic ţūfān (طوفان), which in turn originates from Greek tuphōn (Τυφών), a monster in Greek mythology responsible for hot winds. The related Portuguese word tufão, used in Portuguese for any tropical cyclone, is also derived from Greek tuphōn.43

The word hurricane, used in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, is derived from the name of a native Caribbean Amerindian storm god, Huracan, via Spanish huracán.44 (Huracan is also the source of the word Orcan, another word for the European windstorm. These events should not be confused.)


Storms reaching tropical storm strength were initially given names to eliminate confusion when there are multiple systems in any individual basin at the same time which assists in warning people of the coming storm.45 In most cases, a tropical cyclone retains its name throughout its life; however, under special circumstances, tropical cyclones may be renamed while active. These names are taken from lists which vary from region to region and are drafted a few years ahead of time. The lists are decided upon, depending on the regions, either by committees of the World Meteorological Organization (called primarily to discuss many other issues), or by national weather offices involved in the forecasting of the storms. Each year, the names of particularly destructive storms (if there are any) are "retired" and new names are chosen to take their place.

Notable tropical cyclones

Tropical cyclones that cause extreme destruction are rare, though when they occur, they can cause great amounts of damage or thousands of fatalities.

The 1970 Bhola cyclone is the deadliest tropical cyclone on record, killing over 300,000 people after striking the densely populated Ganges Delta region of Bangladesh on November 13, 1970.46 Its powerful storm surge was responsible for the high death toll. The North Indian cyclone basin has historically been the deadliest basin, with several cyclones since 1900 killing over 100,000 people, all in Bangladesh.32 The Great Hurricane of 1780 is the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, killing about 22,000 people in the Lesser Antilles.47

A tropical cyclone does need not be particularly strong to cause memorable damage, especially if the deaths are from rainfall or mudslides. For example, Tropical Storm Thelma in November 1991 killed thousands in the Philippines, where it was known as Uring. 48

Hurricane Katrina is estimated as the costliest tropical cyclone worldwide, as it struck the Bahamas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in 2005, causing $81.2 billion in property damage (2005 USD) with overall damage estimates exceeding $100 billion (2005 USD).46 Katrina killed at least 1,836 people after striking Louisiana and Mississippi as a major hurricane in August 2005. Hurricane Iniki in 1992 was the most powerful storm to strike Hawaii in recorded history, hitting Kauai as a Category 4 hurricane, killing six people, and causing U.S. $3 billion in damage.49

The relative sizes of Typhoon Tip, Cyclone Tracy, and the United States.

In the most recent and reliable records, most tropical cyclones which attained a pressure of 900 hPa (mbar) (26.56 inHg) or less occurred in the Western North Pacific Ocean. The strongest tropical cyclone recorded worldwide, as measured by minimum central pressure, was Typhoon Tip, which reached a pressure of 870 hPa (25.69 inHg) on October 12, 1979.50 On October 23, 2015, Hurricane Patricia attained the strongest 1-minute sustaine