The strongest tropical storms are called hurricanes, typhoons or tropical cyclones. The different names all mean the same thing, but are used in different parts of the world. If these huge storms start in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa, they are called hurricanes.

In an average year over a dozen hurricanes form over the Atlantic Ocean and head westwards towards the Caribbean, the east coast of Central America and the southern USA (Florida in particular). Hurricanes may last as long as a month and although they travel very slowly - usually at about 24 km/h (15 mph) - wind speeds can reach over 120 km/h (75 mph).

Map showing path of Hurricane Sandy, 2012Map showing path of Hurricane Sandy, 2012

How hurricanes form

Hurricanes need a lot of heat to form and a sea surface temperature of at least 26°C, which is why they usually occur over tropical seas. They also need to be between 5 and 20° north or south of the Equator. It works like this:

  1. When this warm and wet air rises, it condenses to form towering clouds, heavy rainfall. It also creates a low pressure zone near the surface of the water.
  2. Rising warm air causes the pressure to decrease at higher altitudes. Warm air is under a higher pressure than cold air, so moves towards the ‘space’ occupied by the colder, lower pressure, air. So the low pressure ‘sucks in’ air from the warm surroundings, which then also rises. A continuous upflow of warm and wet air continues to create clouds and rain.
  3. Air that surrounds the low pressure zone at the centre flows in a spiral at very high speeds - anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere - at speeds of around 120 km/h (75 mph).
  4. Air is ejected at the top of the storm – which can be 15km high – and falls to the outside of the storm, out and over the top, away from the eye of the storm. As this happens, it reduces the mass of air over the ‘eye of the storm’ - causing the wind speed to increase further. Some ejected air also cools and dries, and sinks through the eye of the storm, adding to the low pressure at the centre.
  5. The faster the winds blow, the lower the air pressure in the centre, and so the cycle continues. The hurricane grows stronger and stronger.
  6. Seen from above, hurricanes are huge circular bodies of thick cloud around 450 km (300 miles) wide. The cloud brings heavy rain, thunder and lightning.
  7. In the centre is the eye of the hurricane, about 45 km across (30 miles) across. Often there will be no clouds in the eye. Seen from below it will seem calmer, with a circle of blue sky above. The eye is formed because this is the only part of the hurricane where cold air is descending.
  8. In the northern hemisphere, the prevailing easterly tropical winds tend to steer hurricanes toward land - although their course is unpredictable. As hurricanes move inshore, their power gradually reduces because their energy comes from sucking up moist sea air.
Diagram showing formation of a hurricaneThe formation of a hurricane