Few meteorological phenomena have such devastating effects as a hurricane. It is no surprise that its name has become synonymous with speed, suddenness, or an act or behaviour that wreaks havoc. For this is precisely the nature of a hurricane, which can raise the sea up into enormous waves, push masses of water deep inland and flatten entire cities with a violent wind. Learn how a hurricane forms, where and when it occurs most often, how long it lasts and why it is, along with earthquakes, the most destructive natural disaster. Plus, we'll advise you on when to plan your voyage in exotic countries, and which destinations to avoid during hurricane season.
What is a hurricane?
In meteorological terms, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone — a storm system rapidly rotating around an area of low pressure typical in tropical regions during different seasons, especially in the Caribbean, around Australia, Southeast Asia and the east coast of North America. About 80 tropical storms occur worldwide each year, of which less than half occur in the Americas, a quarter in South or Southeast Asia and the rest in the South Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Glossary: What is a low-pressure system (cyclone)?
A low-pressure system (cyclone) is a meteorological term that refers to an area in the atmosphere whose centre is at a lower pressure than its surroundings. This pressure formation rotates counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. The arrival of a low-pressure system usually brings with it severe weather with overcast skies, precipitation and strong winds.
Local names for tropical cyclones:
Tropical cyclones have different names in different parts of the world.
- Hurricane — North Atlantic Ocean
- Cyclone — North Indian Ocean, Australia and adjacent areas in the southern hemisphere
- Typhoon — Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, Pacific Ocean
- Cordonazo — hurricane winds on the west coast of Central America and Mexico
The scene in Fort Myers, Florida, on October 1, 2022, after the storm surge of Hurricane Ian.
When is hurricane season?
Hurricane season officially begins on June 1 and ends on November 30 in the Northern Hemisphere, and runs from November to May in the Southern Hemisphere. Hurricanes are given female and male names and an alphabetical list of hurricanes is produced by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Hurricanes recur at regular intervals, although their formation and the eventual development of other tropical storms always depend on the current meteorological conditions.
How does a hurricane form? — the 4 stages of development
Tropical cyclones have 4 clearly defined phases of formation. It all begins with a tropical disturbance when cumulus clouds form but the air has not yet rotated. As the storm grows higher and larger, it becomes a tropical depression, characterised by decreasing pressure and winds increasing up to about 18 m/s (63 km/h). Once sustained winds reach 34 knots, the depression is defined as a tropical storm, which is not yet destructive but can cause significant damage. This is followed by a peak stage, which is divided into five categories. At the end of the last stage, the hurricane then moves over land, where it begins to break up and weaken because it is no longer fed by moist air from the ocean. Condensation over land then causes heavy torrential rains, leading to flooding and landslides.
If you are planning to go yachting in an exotic destination, it is always important to know if there is an increased risk of hurricanes at that time and to keep a close eye on the weather outlook and the current forecast. And if a hurricane has already swept through a country you are visiting, expect that recovery of damaged infrastructure in the area is not immediate, including electricity, drinking water, food, etc. The ability to use credit cards or withdraw cash from ATMs can also be an issue. How quickly the return back to normal depends on the strength of the disaster and the economic development of the affected region.
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Where and how do hurricanes form?
The most favourable conditions for the formation of tropical cyclones are between 5° and 15° latitude, where the Coriolis effect (or Coriolis force) has sufficient centripetal force and the ocean has a suitable temperature. As a result, hurricanes are almost non-existent at the equator but it is the Coriolis effect that causes hurricanes to rotate to the left in the northern hemisphere and to the right in the southern hemisphere. What drives a hurricane is the energy created when water vapour condenses as warm air from the sea meets cooler air above the surface and the water is converted from a gas to a liquid again.
Glossary: What is the Coriolis effect?
The Coriolis effect is the inertial force caused by the rotation and motion of the Earth. It is manifested by the deviation of straight-line moving objects from their original direction. The direction of the deflection is then determined by whether the object is moving away from or towards the centre of rotation.
Tropical cyclone: hurricane, typhoon, cyclonic storm...
There are several types of cyclones, distinguished by their wind speed. It is referred to as a tropical cyclone, hurricane or typhoon when the wind speed exceeds 33 m/s or 118 km/h. This is also the highest point on the Beaufort scale (12). The five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, which is based on the maximum average wind speed, is then used to determine the strength of a hurricane. The strongest category is 5 but these are really the exceptions. For example, Hurricane Camille, which struck the Virginia coast in 1969, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which struck New Orleans and the surrounding area, were devastating.
Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale
- Category 1: winds up to 42 m/s (153 km/h), waves up to 1.6 m, minimal damage (uprooted trees, unanchored items blown away)
- Category 2: winds up to 49 m/s (177 km/h), waves up to 2.6 m, moderate damage (damaged roofs, billboards, damaged vegetation)
- Category 3: winds up to 58 m/s (209 km/h), waves up to 3.7 m, extensive damage (damaged smaller houses, vehicles, flooding)
- Category 4: winds up to 69 m/s (249 km/h), waves up to 6.4 m, extreme damage (damaged house structures, collapsed roofs, flooding, high risk in populated areas)
- Category 5: winds above 70 m/s (252 km/h), waves over 6.4 m, catastrophic damage (destruction of buildings, disruption of infrastructure, loss of life)
Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
Naming hurricanes: what are the rules?
Humankind has been dealing with tropical storms, hurricanes and other destructive forces since the beginning of time. In order to make some kind of sense of unpredictable natural phenomena, humans began to give them names. In the past, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and storms were named after the places where they caused major damage or the saints who were supposed to protect them.
Why did hurricanes only have female names?
Sometime later, tropical cyclones were named after the girlfriends and wives of the men who had to deal with hurricanes. This tradition was introduced by meteorologist Clement Wragge at the turn of the 19th century, and hurricanes were given female names until 2000. In parallel, there was also a designation according to the military phonetic alphabet, which is still used today in flag designations (alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, etc.).
In general, tropical cyclones are named according to rules set at the regional level so that in different localities you may find different lists of names. Since around the 1980s, the World Meteorological Organization introduced a new system that alternates masculine and feminine names — there are 6 alphabetical lists for Atlantic hurricanes with 21 names on each. These lists are used in rotation and recycled every 6 years. This means that in 2022, for example, the list from 2016 was used.
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Names of the most destructive hurricanes are not repeated
An exception is made to honour the victims of tropical cyclones that caused enormous damage (Katrina or Irma, for example) and the name is retired from the list and replaced so that each list still contains 21 names. In the event that more than 21 hurricanes hit in any given year, the Greek alphabet is used. Unfortunately, this situation is occurring more and more each year due to global warming and rising ocean water temperatures. Scientists believe, however, based on the sediments on the seabed, that hurricanes were significantly more common between about 1,000 and 2,000 years ago than they are today.
Atlantic Hurricane Season 2022: Storm Overview
Tropical Storm Alex
In late May 2022, a low-pressure system formed near the Yucatan Peninsula, influenced by the aftershocks of Hurricane Agatha. The Gulf of Mexico, South Florida, Cuba and Bermuda were affected.
Tropical Storm Bonnie
In early June 2022, a cyclone hit the North Carolina area, one of the few to make the transition from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
Tropical Storm Colin
In early June 2022, a low-pressure system formed off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, which later hit North Carolina. This was a relatively mild storm with more intense flooding.
In late August, the first hurricane of 2022 formed in the Atlantic, with a magnitude of 1 to 2 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, mainly affecting the Azores.
The first powerful hurricane of 2022 formed in early September, narrowly missing Bermuda and hitting Belize, where it blew off the roofs of houses, snapped trees and caused flooding.
In mid-September, Hurricane Fiona hit the Atlantic coast of Canada, which was exceptional in that it retained its strength from the tropics to far north. It was a very destructive cyclone with torrential rains that tore down entire houses.
Tropical Storm Gaston
In late September 2022, a tropical storm formed in the mid-Atlantic, and while it caused some inconvenience along the coast of South America, it remained mostly over the ocean.
Tropical Storm Hermine
Tropical Storm Hermine formed at about the same time as Tropical Storm Gaston. It hit the Canary Islands, but as expected, it did not cause any damage to property.
The hurricane that swept across the United States in September–October 2022 hit Florida hardest. In addition to the crushing impact on infrastructure, several dozen people lost their lives. The states of North and South Carolina were also affected.
In the first half of October 2022, Hurricane Julia made landfall on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Although in the first hours the cyclone caused major damage due to torrential rains, flooding and landslides, it later weakened to a tropical storm.
Tropical Storm Karl
In the second half of October 2022, a pressure low formed off the coast of Venezuela that alternated in strength between a tropical storm and a hurricane, hitting Mexico the hardest.
In early November 2022, Hurricane Lisa swept across Belize, Guatemala and southeastern Mexico with a Category 1 hurricane force. The storm was accompanied by winds of 140 km per hour.
A catamaran dumped on a street in a residential neighbourhood after Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, in October 2022.
How to predict a hurricane
As with all meteorological phenomena, a number of aspects are taken into consideration to make the most accurate forecast model for hurricanes and tropical storms. Because of the way cyclones form, changes in pressure, temperature, airflow, ocean currents, seasons and many other variables must be mapped regularly and over a long period of time.
Monitor the weather forecasts
In many ways, modern technology makes weather forecasting much easier. There is an incredible amount of data available from all sorts of sensors, vantage points, satellite imagery and the like that the human mind would not be able to process. This data is processed by the world's most powerful computers, which are able to incorporate many years of observations, information gathering and actual variables into their projections.
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Storms in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean off the coast of the Cayman Islands
Hurricanes can occur outside of hurricane season
If you're planning a sail in an exotic destination, you'll not only be interested in the current forecast for a few hours or days ahead, but you'll also want to make sure that you don't arrive in that location during a hurricane. While hurricanes and tropical storms do not recur at precise times, it is very possible to determine if there is a risk based on long-term observation. It is very similar to planning a holiday in countries where dry and monsoon seasons alternate. No one can predict the exact day and time when the monsoon will come or go, but everyone knows from experience that some months are rainy and some are sunny.
To determine whether or not to sail in your chosen destination simply use one of the many forecast maps or apps to get an indication of whether you'll be cruising in beautiful sunny weather or sheltering from dangerously strong winds and torrential rain. Choosing the wrong time of year can mean that instead of an idyllic sailing experience, you'll be glad you're not losing the roof over your head.
Where to find the latest hurricane information
Reliable forecasts and long-term predictions are offered by many meteorological organisations, some of which focus directly on tracking the formation of cyclones, whether it is a tropical storm or a hurricane.
National Hurricane Center and Central Pacific Hurricane Center — www.nhc.noaa.gov
AccuWeather — www.accuweather.com/en-gb/hurricane
Windy — www.windy.com
Tropical Storm Risk (TSR) — www.tropicalstormrisk.com