Words for Extreme Weather Events

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What’s the difference between a hurricane, a typhoon, and a tropical storm? The first two types of weather events are cyclones that sustain surface winds of at least 74 miles per hour—faster than virtually any highway speed limit in the United States. The term “tropical storm” refers to a degraded hurricane or typhoon.

And why are there separate designations for hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, which are essentially identical weather events? Hurricanes are storms that develop east of the International Date Line, which runs north to south through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hurricane is derived from the aboriginal Taino language’s word hurakán, which was borrowed into Spanish as huracán and thence into English. Taino was spoken throughout the islands of the Caribbean Sea, so it is natural that the language would inspire present-day usage. (A number of other words survive by assimilation from that dead language into English, including barbecue, hammock, and tobacco.)

Typhoon, by contrast, stems from Greek, although it refers primarily to storms occurring in the vicinity of China and the Philippines, on the other side of the International Date Line. What’s the connection? The Greek term typhon was appropriated by the Arabs and thence found its way into Chinese, influenced by a similar-sounding Chinese word for “big wind.” And cyclone, also from Greek (ultimately from kyklos, also the origin of circle and cycle), is used popularly in the South Pacific Ocean, though scientists worldwide use the term when speaking or writing in English.

Why do we capitalize names of hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical storms, and why are they assigned people’s first names? These are conventions established in the early 1950s by the scientific community to distinguish between two or more weather events occurring at or near the same time. (For the first quarter-century, only female names were used, following an alphabetized list. Starting in 1978, male names were used as well.)

The tradition of assigning personal names to severe storms actually goes back hundreds of years, however; Caribbean hurricanes were named after saints based on which saint’s day the storm occurred, and the assignment of women’s names dates to the late nineteenth century. Some eighty names have, because of the catastrophic severity of the event, been retired from the list, an average of more than one a year; in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was only one of five storms whose names were retired because of the especially devastating nature of the storm.

The score given to quantify a hurricane’s strength is also capitalized; the highest level is Category 5.

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7 thoughts on “Words for Extreme Weather Events”

  1. Be careful with the placement of “only” (one of my pet peeves): it should be placed near the word or phrase it modifies. In the next-to-last sentence, “Hurricane Katrina was only one of five storms whose names were retired…” should be “Hurricane Katrina was one of ONLY five storms whose names were retired…”

  2. Technically, cyclones are low pressure areas and in northern hemisphere the wind flows around the center counterclockwise. Hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes are extreme cyclones. Tropical storms are cyclones that form in the tropics; a hurricane is a tropical storm whose winds exceed 75 mph. In the US East, nor’easters are cyclones whose fury sometimes equals that of hurricanes, but occur in late fall and winter and to not originate in the tropics.

    In South Asia, Bangladesh for certain, people use correctly “cyclone” to refer to either what we call hurricanes and what we call tornadoes. Discerning the difference requires understanding the context: If the cyclone occurred only over land, it probably was a tornado, if it started over water and came ashore, it probably was a hurricane.

  3. @Lynn: I don’t think so. “Hurricane Katrina was only one of five storms whose names were retired…” makes the point that it was only one of five. IOW, there was nothing unique about retiring Katrina’s as a name. Your edit: “Hurricane Katrina was one of ONLY five storms whose names were retired…” Implies that the important point is that only five storms in total had there names changed. Two different, albeit (albethey?) subtly different, points are made by the two choices of “only” placement.

    @Jim Hertsch: “…if it started over water and came ashore, it probably was a hurricane.” It would not be a hurricane, but rather a typhoon if it happened in South Asia-Bangladesh, right?

  4. While we are kind of on the subject (somewhat weather related) there is a difference between a tidal wave and a tsunami, though the 2 terms are often used interchangeably in the popular media. A tidal wave is a mostly shallower-water, near coast event that is caused in part by atmospheric (that is, weather) conditions. A tsunami is a more unusual phenomenon that is caused by an underwater event like a submarine earthquake or landslide that has a much “deeper” effect on the water. Both can come crashing onto a shore in the form of a huge wave and do tremendous damage. To the poor person standing on the beach, there probably is no discernable difference and the immediate future is indistinguishably bad. But they do have different origins and causal mechanisms.

  5. Response to Veqax:

    1. In Bangladesh, I can say from experience (living there two years) they are simply called cyclones, whether they are what we call hurricanes/typhoons or what we call tornadoes.
    2. Tsunami was, I think, Pacific Islanders name for tidal waves, We adopted it in the 60’s or 70’s in part because they have little to do with tide. The terms are pretty synonymous, However, as our understanding of hurricanes has increased, we evolved the name of the phenomenon connected to them to “tidal surge.” I recall my mother’s describing the 1938 (before we named hurricanes) hurricane as including six or eight “tidal waves.”

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