Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones

February 21, 2016
By Damond Benningfield

390816-hurricane vs. typhoon.jpg

Typhoon Francisco approaching Japan, October 22, 2013. Credit: NASA

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it’s certain that a hurricane by any other name can be just as deadly. That’s because the names we call big tropical storm systems are all describing the same thing — a spinning pattern of clouds with strong winds, heavy rains, and deadly storm surges.

In the western hemisphere, once a system’s winds reach 39 miles per hour, we call it a tropical storm and give it a formal name. And when the winds hit 74 miles per hour, we call it a hurricane — from the name of an unpleasant Caribbean god.

In other parts of the world, though, the nomenclature is a bit different. In the western Pacific Ocean, once the winds hit that 74-mile-per-hour mark, a storm is called a typhoon, from a mixture of several Chinese and Persian words. The most powerful storms are super typhoons. And in the southwestern Pacific and the Indian Ocean, such a storm is known as a cyclone.

A storm can start in the western hemisphere as a hurricane, then change to a typhoon when it crosses the International Date Line. In 2014, for example, Hurricane Genevieve was born in the eastern Pacific, then became Typhoon Genevieve when it crossed the date line.

Thanks to warmer waters in the western Pacific, there are generally many more named typhoons than hurricanes. And the average typhoon tends to be a little stronger than the average hurricane. No matter what you call it, though — hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone — it’s the same thing: a deadly storm churning across the oceans.