Typhoon vs. Hurricane: What’s the Difference?

Which of these terms you use has more to do with where in the world you live than anything else.

A storm by any other name…is just a storm? Yes, a hurricane is the same as a typhoon, which is also the same as a cyclone. The only difference is in their names, though those names do depend on where a storm originates. A “hurricane” occurs over the North Atlantic or over the central or eastern North Pacific oceans—in places like Florida, the Caribbean, Texas and Hawaii. Forming over the western North Pacific, in East Asian countries like Japan and Korea? That’s a “typhoon.” Both hurricanes and typhoons are tropical cyclones—and “cyclone” is what they’re called when they occur in other places, such as over the Indian Ocean.

Exactly what is a tropical cyclone?

Well, it starts out over tropical or semitropical waters as what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls a “rotating” and “organized” series of clouds and thunderstorms. (In the Northern hemisphere they all spin counterclockwise.) When it first gets going, it’s called a “tropical depression.” As it picks up speed, it gets upgraded to a “tropical storm”—it needs to have winds of at least 62 kilometres an hour (39 miles an hour) to earn this designation. And when sustained winds of 119 kilometres an hour (74 miles an hour) are reached, the storm has intensified, or “matured,” to the point where we now refer to it as a hurricane, a typhoon or an intensified tropical cyclone. (Read this inspiring story of how Canadians rescued homeless dogs from Hurricane Harvey.)

Why the different names?

Cyclone is generic, and the word meteorologists use to speak generally of these storms. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates its origins to 1848 when it was presumably used first to describe an intense storm that happened over India in 1789; it comes, loosely, from the Greek word kyklon, “moving in a circle, whirling around.” The word hurricane’s origins in the Americas date to the arrival of the Spanish here in the 15th and 16th centuries; the Spanish word for hurricane is huracán. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word typhoon comes from tufan, which means “big cyclonic storm” in Arabic, Persian, and Hindi. (Look out for these bizarre things that happen when it’s about to storm.)

Alike, but not always the same

Hurricane vs. typhoon, how do they compare? Well, they’re not all exactly alike; they vary in intensity and how that intensity is factored depends on who’s doing the factoring. In Canada, hurricanes are classified based on wind speed using the Saffir Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which is made up of five categories based on how long the wind is sustained for: Category 1 has winds of 119-153 kilometres an hour; Category 2, 154-177 km/hr; Category 3, 178-209 km/hr; Category 4, 210-249 km/hr; and Category 5, 249 km/hr and above.

However, the World Meteorological Organization gives strong typhoons, very strong typhoons, and violent typhoons a Class 5 designation, with wind speeds ranging from 119 km/hr through 191 km/hr and above. (Check out these wild photos that show the true power of Mother Nature.)

Hurricane vs. typhoon: the similarities

No matter what you call it, these potentially dangerous storms bring strong winds, lots of rain and flooding. And no matter where in the world you are, if you live in a region that experiences cyclones (or hurricanes or typhoons), the largest and most intense of those storms are becoming more and more likely, due to climate change, a recent study found.

Next, find out what not to do when severe weather strikes.


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Originally Published on Reader's Digest