Hurricane Basics

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What is a hurricane?

The ingredients for a hurricane include a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture, and relatively light winds aloft. If the right conditions persist long enough, they can combine to produce the violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains, and floods we associate with this phenomenon.

Each year, an average of ten tropical storms develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. Many of these remain over the ocean and never impact the U.S. coastline. About six of these storms become hurricanes each year. In an average three-year period, roughly five hurricanes strike the U.S. coastline, killing approximately 50 to 100 people anywhere from Texas to Maine. Of these, two are typically "major" or "intense" hurricanes (a Category 3 or higher storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale).

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

  • 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

* Sustained winds: A 1-minute average wind measured at about 33 ft (10 meters) above the surface.
** 1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour or 1.15 statute miles per hour. Abbreviated as "kt".

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.

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Provided by The National Weather Service. The National Weather Service is a component of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is an Operating Unit of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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