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. So, typhoon vs. hurricane, what’s the difference? Nothing at all, except 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. Find out more about the weather terms you’ll want to know.

Exactly what is a tropical cyclone?

Well, it starts out over tropical or semitropical waters as what NOAA 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 39 miles an hour to earn this designation. And when sustained winds of 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.

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 Gawker, “‘Typhoon’ entered the English language when explorers interacted with residents of southwest and southern Asia [and] comes from tufan, which means ‘big cyclonic storm’ in Arabic, Persian, and Hindi.”

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 the United States, we rate hurricanes on a scale of 1 to 5, using the Saffir-Simpson Scale that’s based on maximum wind speed: Category 1 has winds between 74 and 95 miles an hour; Category 2, between 96 and110 mph; Category 3, between 111 and 129 mph; Category 4, between 130 and 156 mph; and Category 5, 157 mph and above. Here’s what those classifications practically mean. However, the World Meteorological Organization gives strong typhoons, very strong typhoons, and violent typhoons a Class 5 designation, with wind speeds ranging from 74 miles an hour through 119-plus miles an hour.

Hurricane vs. typhoon: the similarities

No matter what you call these intense and sometimes dangerous storms, 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. Typhoon vs. hurricane vs. cyclone, no matter what we call them or where we experience them, we’re in for a wild future. Make sure you’re prepared!

Sources:

  • NOAA: “What is the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon?”
  • TheVane: “A Typhoon and a Hurricane Are the Same, So Why Do We Call Them Different Names?”
  • PNAS: “Global increase in major tropical cyclone exceedance probability over the past four decades”

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Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.