What is a Hurricane

Nov 12, 2012

With the advent of Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast, it’s hard to open the paper without seeing some hurricane news, so it’s a good idea to get to know exactly what a hurricane is. Hurricanes are what scientists call "strong tropical cyclones." They're a large, rotating system of clouds, wind and thunderstorm activity that wreaks havoc wherever it goes. Get the goods on one of the world’s most deadly natural occurrences in All About Hurricanes.

What happens in a Hurricane?

A hurricane, tropical cyclone, or typhoon is a severe tropical storm that forms in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico or Pacific Ocean. When large parts of the ocean become heated, the air pressure over that area drops, causing thunderstorms, incredible waves and violent winds that start at 74 mph (miles per hour). Hurricanes rotate in a counter-clockwise direction around an "eye." When they come onto land, the torrential rains, winds and waves can damage buildings, trees and cars. In the US, the official Atlantic hurricane season is from June 1 to November 30, and the Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30. However, hurricanes can happen at any time of the year.

Hurricane Classification

Based on their wind speeds and damage potential, hurricanes are ranked according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It starts at one (lowest winds) and goes up to five (highest winds).

  • Category One: 74-95 mph winds.
  • Category Two: 96-110 mph winds.
  • Category Three: 111-130 mph winds.
  • Category Four: 131-155 mph winds.
  • Category Five: Winds greater than 155 mph.

The Naming Process

A tropical storm is given a name once its winds reach 40 mph. Originally hurricanes were only given girls’ names (like Sandy, or Katrina). The first storm of the year was assigned a name beginning with the letter "A," the second with a "B" and so on. However, boys names were introduced in 1979 and now, the names are alternated. Some male hurricane names in the past have been Andrew and Hugo.

American Hurricanes: Sandy and Katrina

The most recent hurricane to hit American shores was Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was the largest Atlantic Hurricane on record. It was the tenth Hurricane to happen in the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane season. It was formed on October 22nd, 2012 and had completely dissipated by October 31st. Sandy devastated portions of the Caribbean, the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeastern United States. The total people who died because of Sandy so far is 191. Sandy started out as a tropical wave in the western Caribbean, but resurfaced as a powerful Category Two Hurricane and took roofs off houses in Jamaica and left 70% of residents without electricity.

On August 24, 2005, a Category One Hurricane formed in the Atlantic Ocean and hit Miami, FL, causing major flooding, loss of power to more than one million residents, and 11 deaths. This hurricane, named Katrina, later became a Category 5, with winds of 175 mph, and hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Nearly 2,000 people died as cities were flooded, buildings were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes. Hurricane Katrina was one of the four fiercest US storms ever seen.

Important Terms

  • Hurricane Watch: A hurricane is possible within 36 hours. You should stay tuned to the radio or television for more information    
  • Hurricane Warning: A hurricane with winds of 74 mph is expected within 24 hours. You may have to prepare to evacuate your home.

Find out more about hurricanes in "Hurricanes 101," by National Geographic below!                                                                                


Have Your Say

Did you experience Hurricane Sandy or Katrina? Let us know in the comments section below.


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