Cyclone vs. Hurricane: Differences Between These Major Storms

By: Stephanie Vermillion & Yara Simón  | 
Cyclone Amphan
Super Cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal, India, near the Bangladeshi border on May 20, 2020. It was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. MercuryNews

Cyclones and hurricanes may sound like different kinds of natural disasters, but these tropical systems are actually quite similar. The two storms fall under the overarching category of "tropical cyclone," which is "a rapid rotating storm originating over tropical oceans from where it draws the energy to develop," according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Understanding the differences in cyclone vs. hurricane categorization comes down to location.


What Are Tropical Cyclones?

A tropical cyclone — also known as a hurricane, typhoon or cyclone, depending on the region — is a powerful and organized weather phenomenon that originates over warm ocean waters near the equator (approximately 300 miles away). This weather system has low atmospheric pressure, sustained winds, torrential rains and intense thunderstorms. Warm water can make a cyclone more intense.

Depending on the time of year, tropical cyclones form around the world, including in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, North Indian basin, North Indian basin, North Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.


Cyclone vs. Hurricane

The biggest difference is the terminology we use to distinguish them depending on their geographic locations:

  • A tropical cyclone that reaches wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour) and takes place in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic Ocean and the central North Pacific Ocean is referred to as a hurricane. Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey are examples of this type of tropical storm.
  • Those that occur in the Northern Indian Ocean (the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea) are called tropical cyclones.
  • In the western South Pacific and southeast Indian Ocean, these storms are known as severe tropical cyclones.
  • In the North Pacific, it is a typhoon.


Why Tropical Cyclones, Hurricanes and Typhoons Have Different Names

So if they all come with high wind speed and heavy rain, why the different names? Well for one, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons occur in specific locales on the globe, and they form during different seasons. The tropical cyclone season in the Northern Indian Ocean, which includes the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, has two peaks of activity. The first occurs from April until June and the second is from September until December. The strongest cyclones occur during the fall peak.

The Atlantic hurricane season, on the other hand, runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. But the most powerful and most destructive hurricanes usually occur in August, September and early October for several reasons: This is when African easterly waves are most developed, wind shear that can destroy potential tropical cyclones tends to be low, sea-surface temperatures are at their peak, and atmosphere instability also rises in the fall.


In the North Pacific, typhoons typically form from May through October, although they can generate all year.

The worst place for these storms is in the Bay of Bengal, where 26 of the world's 35 deadliest tropical cyclones have been recorded. In May 2020, Super Cyclone Amphan made landfall in eastern India as the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal.


Intense Storm Surge

The Bay of Bengal is the world's largest bay, and India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia border it. It's highly cyclone-prone because its shallow and concave bays are ideal for funneling cyclones as the storms travel, according to BBC. These bays, paired with a high sea surface temperature, are the perfect conditions for extreme cyclones.

But hurricanes in the Atlantic also are increasing in strength — and climate change may be the cause, according to a June 2020 paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Researchers studied 39 years' worth of data to determine that not only are storms getting stronger, but major tropical cyclones also are increasing in frequency. This trend could be a "perfect coincidence of other trends," according to Live Science, but the models and real-world observations indicate climate change is most likely to blame.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.