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Cyclones vs. Tornados: Aren’t They the Same Thing?

Every year we hear about disasters that struck somewhere in the world. Severe storms, tropical or otherwise, bring floods, landslides, and sometimes even death in their wake. The words that are almost always used to report and talk about these storms are cyclones and tornados, but aren’t they the same thing?

Cyclones and tornados are not the same. Although they’re both regarded as stormy atmospheric systems, they differ significantly in formation, appearance, life-cycle, location, frequency, forms of precipitation, measurement, and identification.

If you want some clarity about tropical storms, cyclones, tropical cyclones, tornados, and typhoons, you need to look no further. Let’s discuss the differences…

The Differences Between Cyclones & Tornados

Tropical cyclones (also called hurricanes or typhoons) are large storms with strong winds that rotate around low-pressure centers.

Tornados are violent storms with strong winds that spiral around centers in funnel-shaped clouds. The devastating damage to properties and lives is not due to the strong winds but secondary events like floods, landslides, and storm surges. 

For the period 1998-2017, a staggering 233,000 people were killed by storms, including tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Although tropical cyclones and tornados are both storms with rotating winds, they have several identifiable differences.

Here is a quick summary of some of the main differences between a tropical cyclone and a tornado:

Tropical CycloneTornado
FormationForms over waterForms over land
AppearanceAverage of 200 miles (320 km) in diameter.Between 50 feet and 2,6 miles in diameter.
Life-cycleTypically, 5 – 10 daysSeveral seconds to more than an hour.
LocationForms over the South Pacific or the Indian OceanForms over land
Annual Frequency45 around the globeOver 1,000 per year in America alone
Form of PrecipitationRainRain, sleet, and hail.
MeasurementBeauford scale or Saffir-Simpson scaleFujita scale
IdentificationAlmost always have namesSeldom have names

Let’s delve into these differences in more detail:

The Formation of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

The way that tropical cyclones form is different to the way tornados form. Here’s how…

How a Tropical Cyclone is Formed

A cyclone is formed when warm, moist air from the ocean’s surface rises and leaves behind a low-pressure area below. Higher air pressure from the surrounding areas then moves into this low-pressure area left behind. The cycle gets repeated once this “new area” becomes warm and moist once again.

Meanwhile, the warm, moist air that has risen gets cooled down and forms clouds in the air. These clouds, combined with winds, start to rotate faster and faster—eventually, an eye forms in the center. When the wind speeds reach 74 mph (119 km/h), a tropical storm called a tropical cyclone is formed.

How a Tornado is Formed

A tornado forms when warm, humid air comes in contact with cold, dry air. This phenomenon produces a thunderstorm. Sometimes, this updraft of warm air through cold air is accompanied by winds.

If these winds are strong enough, the updraft begins to rotate, referred to as a mesocycle. The water droplets from the mesocycle eventually form a funnel, and once this funnel hits the ground, it becomes a tornado.

The Appearances of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

What a Tropical Cyclone Looks Like

The diameter of a tropical cyclone is around 200 miles (320 km). These cyclones rotate clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere with average winds of about 74 mph (119 km/h).

DID YOU KNOW: The most significant and most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded was Typhoon Tip. It made landfall in southern Japan on October 19, 1979. Typhoon Tip reached winds of 190 mph (305 km/h) and had a wind diameter of 1,380 miles (2,220 km).

What a Tornado Looks Like

The diameter of a tornado is between 50 feet and 2,6 miles (4 km) in diameter. Similar to cyclones, tornados also rotate clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. The maximum winds that a tornado can generate is 360 mph (575 km/h).

DID YOU KNOW: The highest winds ever observed in a tornado were in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma. It reached winds of 302 mph (486 km/h). The deadliest tornado in world history appeared in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989, and took the lives of at least 1,300 people.

The Life-cycles of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

The life cycle of a tornado is far shorter than that of a Tropical Cyclone

Tropical Cyclone Life Cycle

The average life-cycle of a tropical cyclone can last anything from one day to as long as one month. Typically, though, they last for 5 to 10 days.

DID YOU KNOW: The longest recorded tropical cyclone was Hurricane John. It lasted 31 days from August 11 to September 11, 1994.

Tornado Life Cycle

A strong tornado usually lasts for 20 minutes or more. A violent tornado, however, can last for more than an hour. Most tornados do not last for more than 10 minutes.

DID YOU KNOW: The Tri-State Tornado from 1925 is recorded as the longest-lasting tornado in history. It traveled 219 miles (352 km) and was on the ground for a whopping 3,5 hours.

The Locations of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

Where do Tropical Cyclones Occur?

Tropical cyclones typically occur over oceans with waters warmer than 80 ⁰F: the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Pacific Ocean, however, generates the largest percentage of tropical storms and cyclones.

Where do Tornados Happen?

Tornados occur in continents all over the world, except Antarctica. The Great Plains of central America produce the most tornados as the environment is ideal for severe thunderstorms. This area is also known as Tornado Alley.

However, tornados occur worldwide and have been reported in Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The two areas with the highest concentration of tornados outside America are Argentina and Bangladesh. 

The Frequency of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

How Often do Tropical Cyclones Happen?

According to the World Meteorological Organization, around 85 tropical storms form annually over the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Typically, approximately 45 of those become tropical cyclones. The most tropical cyclones ever recorded in a year was in 2020, with 30 tropical cyclones.

How Often do Tornados Happen?

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NOAA), an average of 1,253 tornados occurs annually in the United States. In second place is Canada, with an average of 100 tornados per year

FUN FACT: In 1981, the United Kingdom made history with a recorded 104 tornados over a mere 5 hour and 26 minutes timespan.

Forms of Precipitation: Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

Typical Type of Precipitation from a Tropical Cyclone

Because of the warm core structure of a tropical cyclone, hail and sleet usually melt before reaching the ground. Tropical cyclones typically produce hefty rainfall that in turn causes severe flooding.

Typical Type of Precipitation from a Tornado

Tornados can produce rain, hail, and sleet. Rain first precedes the storm. Then, hail is formed from updrafts within thunderstorms. More often than not, tornados present with rain, hail, and sleet because these updrafts become extremely strong in tornados.

Measurement of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

How Do we Measure a Tropical Cyclone

A scale used to forecast the potential for loss of life and damage during a tropical cyclone is the Saffir-Simpson scale. According to the NOAA, this scale has a 1 to 5 rating based on wind speed and ‘estimates potential property damage.’

Another scale used to measure the strength of a tropical cyclone is calculated on the Beaufort scale (Beaufort wind force scale). The initial scale, devised in 1805, referenced only wind conditions and not wind speeds.

In 1946, scientists extended the scale to forecast wind speeds of tropical cyclones. The scale predicts wind strength by using numbers from 1 to 12. When the winds reach a 12, a tropical cyclone warning is sent out.

How Do We Measure a Tornado?

One method in which a tornado’s strength is measured is by using the Fujita scale or Fujita-Pearson scale. It was first introduced in 1971, but the United States introduced a more enhanced scale in 2007.

This newer and better scale is still used today in the accurate measurement of wind speeds to the ‘severity of damage caused by the tornado.’

Identification of Tropical Cyclones vs. Tornados

How We Identify a Tropical Cyclone

Initially, until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were identified by year and order. However, this type of identification caused a lot of confusion as storm broadcasts were often confused with storm warnings.

The United States first started using female names for storms in 1953, and by 1978, both male and female names were used in identifying storms in the Northern Pacific.

Interestingly, the NOAA does not control the naming of these storms. The World Meteorological Organization maintains the strict procedure of giving names to tropical cyclones. These lists of names are used on a six-year rotation basis.

Some female names used in 2020, for instance, included Paulette, Bertha, and Laura. Male names included Arthur, Marco, and Omar.

Tornados and cyclones can both leave a trail of destruction behind

How We Identify Tornados

Tornados are typically not given names because of their short life cycles and the fact that there are simply too many.

From all these differences, it is evident that tropical cyclones and tornados are not the same, but what about cyclones and hurricanes?

Are Cyclones and Hurricanes the Same Thing?

Earlier on, I touched briefly on the fact that another name for a tropical cyclone is a hurricane or a typhoon. There are, however, different types of tropical cyclones, and only two of them can be described as hurricanes. Therefore, all hurricanes are cyclones, but not all cyclones are hurricanes. Allow me to explain:

There are four types of tropical cyclones:

  • Tropical Depression: winds not exceeding 38 mph (61 km/h)
  • Tropical Storm: winds not exceeding 73 mph (117 km/h)
  • Hurricane: winds of 74 mph (119 km/h) or higher
  • Major Hurricane: winds of 111mph (178 km/h) or higher

From these types of tropical cyclones, it is evident that only when storm winds measure 74 mph (119 km/h) or higher is it called a hurricane or a typhoon. To make matters even more confusing, some parts of the world use different terms for these severe tropical storms:

  • The North Atlantic, eastern North Pacific, and central North Pacific use the term hurricanes.
  • The Northwest Pacific uses the term typhoon.
  • The Indian Ocean and South Pacific use the term tropical cyclone.

Can Hurricanes/Tropical Cyclones Create Tornados?

We’ve established earlier on that a tropical cyclone and a tornado are two vastly different weather phenomena. An interesting fact, though, is that the one can create the other: Tropical cyclones can spawn tornados! How is that even possible?

According to an article from the New York Times written by Henry Fountain, as long as hurricanes are over water, they can never form tornados. However, once hurricanes make landfall, they can easily create tornados. Jana Houser, an associate professor of meteorology at Ohio University, explains the reason being that in the formation of tornados, ‘the biggest culprit is surface friction.’

Surface friction dramatically increases when the rain bands of a tropical cyclone hit land. When this happens, a situation is created where there are changes in wind speed and direction. This so-called ‘shear’ can quickly induce a spinning motion in the air. This spinning movement can easily tilt upright as with any other thunderstorm. It is with this upright tilting that a tornado is created.

Tornados created from tropical cyclones are usually less powerful than your typical Great Plains tornados referred to earlier. 

Conclusion

There are clearly identifiable differences between tropical cyclones and tornados. They differ in formation, appearance, life-cycle, location, frequency, forms of precipitation, measurement, and identification. One thing that they do share, though, is the devastating effects they leave in their wake.