What is a Hurricane?

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, which is a generic term for a low pressure system that generally forms in the tropics. The cyclone is accompanied by thunderstorms and, in the Northern Hemisphere, a counterclockwise circulation of winds near the earth’s surface. Tropical cyclones are classified as follows:

Tropical Depression
An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph (33 kt) or less. Sustained winds are a 1-minute average wind measured at about 33 ft (10 meters) above the surface. While 1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour or 1.15 statute miles per hour and is abbreviated as “kt”.

Tropical Storm
An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39-73 mph (34-63 kt)

Hurricane
An intense tropical weather system of strong thunderstorms with a well-defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 kt) or higher

Hurricanes are categorized according to the strength of their winds using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. A Category 1 storm has the lowest wind speeds, while a Category 5 hurricane has the strongest. These are relative terms, because lower category storms can sometimes inflict greater damage than higher category storms, depending on where they strike and the particular hazards they bring. In fact, tropical storms can also produce significant damage and loss of life, mainly due to flooding.

Hurricane Names

When the the winds from these storms reach 39 mph (34 kts), the cyclones are given names. Years ago, an international committee developed names for Atlantic cyclones (The History of Naming Hurricanes). In 1979 a six year rotating list of Atlantic storm names was adopted — alternating between male and female hurricane names. Storm names are used to facilitate geographic referencing, for warning services, for legal issues, and to reduce confusion when two or more tropical cyclones occur at the same time. Through a vote of the World Meteorological Organization Region IV Subcommittee, Atlantic cyclone names are retired usually when hurricanes result in substantial damage or death or for other special circumstances.

(Thanks to the NHC.)