Hurricane Waves

Frequently Asked Questions About Hurricanes

  1. What is a hurricane, typhoon, or tropical cyclone?
  2. What are “Cape Verde” type hurricanes?
  3. What is a super-typhoon?
  4. Where do these easterly waves come from and what causes them?
  5. What is a sub-tropical cyclone?
  6. How are tropical cyclones different from mid-latitude storms?
  7. How are tropical cyclones different from tornadoes?
  8. What is the “eye”? How is it formed and maintained?
  9. Doesn’t the low pressure in the tropical cyclone center cause the storm surge?


1. What is a hurricane, typhoon, or tropical cyclone? top

The terms “hurricane” and “typhoon” are regionally specific names for a strong “tropical cyclone.” A tropical cyclone is the generic term for a non-frontal synoptic scale low-pressure system over tropical or subtropical waters with organized convection (i.e. thunderstorm activity) and definite cyclonic surface wind circulation.

Tropical cyclones with maximum sustained surface winds of less than 17 m/s (34 kt) are called “tropical depressions” (this is not to be confused with the condition mid-latitude people get during a long, cold and grey winter wishing they could be closer to the equator). Once the tropical cyclone reaches winds of at least 17 m/s they are typically called a “tropical storm” and they are assigned a name. If the cyclone’s winds reach 33 m/s (64 kt), it will be classified as a “hurricane” (in the North Atlantic Ocean, in the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline,or in the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E); a “typhoon” (in the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline); a “severe tropical cyclone” (in the Southwest Pacific Ocean west of 160E or Southeast Indian Ocean east of 90E); a “severe cyclonic storm” (in the North Indian Ocean); and a “tropical cyclone” (in the Southwest Indian Ocean).

Note that just the definition of “maximum sustained surface winds” depends upon who is taking the measurements. The World Meteorology Organization guidelines suggest utilizing a 10 min average to get a sustained measurement. Most countries utilize this as the standard. However the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) of the USA use a 1 min averaging period to get sustained winds. This difference may provide complications in comparing the statistics from one basin to another, since using a smaller averaging period may slightly raise the number of occurrences.

2. What are “Cape Verde” type hurricanes? top

Cape Verde-type hurricanes are those Atlantic basin tropical cyclones that develop into tropical storms fairly close (<1000km or so) to the Cape Verde Islands and then become hurricanes before reaching the Caribbean. (there may be other definitions). Typically, this occurs in August and September, but in rare years (like 1995), there may be some in late July and/or early October. The numbers range from none up to around five per year, with an average of around 2.

3. What is a super-typhoon? top

A “super-typhoon” is a term utilized by the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Guam for typhoons that reach maximum sustained 1-minute surface winds of at least 130 kt (240 km/h). This is the equivalent of a strong Saffir-Simpson category 4 or category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic basin or a category 5 severe tropical cyclone in the Australian basin.

4. Where do these easterly waves come from and what causes them? top

It has been recognized since at least the 1930s that lower tropospheric (from the ocean surface to about 5 km with a maximum at 3 km) westward traveling disturbances often serve as the “seedling” circulations for a large proportion of tropical cyclones over the North Atlantic Ocean. In 1945, Riehl helped to substantiate that these disturbances, now known as African easterly waves, had their origins over North Africa. While a variety of mechanisms for the origins of these waves were proposed in the next few decades, it was Burpee in 1972, who documented that the waves were being generated by an instability of the African easterly jet. This instability—known as baroclinic-barotropic instability—is where the value of the potential vorticity begins to decrease toward the north. The jet arises as a result of the reversed lower-tropospheric temperature gradient over western and central North Africa due to extremely warm temperatures over the Saharan Desert in contrast with substantially cooler temperatures along the Gulf of Guinea coast.

The waves move generally toward the west in the lower tropospheric tradewind flow across the Atlantic Ocean. They are first seen usually in April or May and continue until October or November. The waves have a period of about 3 or 4 days and a wavelength of 2000 to 2500 km, typically. These “waves&lrquo; are actually convectively-active troughs along an extended wave train. On average, about 60 waves are generated over North Africa each year, but it appears that the number that are formed has no relationship to how much tropical cyclone activity there is over the Atlantic each year.

While only about 60% of the Atlantic tropical storms and minor hurricanes (Saffir-Simpson Scale categories 1 and 2) originate from easterly waves, nearly 85% of the intense (or major) hurricanes have their origins as easterly waves. It is suggested that nearly all of the tropical cyclones that occur in the Eastern Pacific Ocean can also be traced back to Africa.

It is currently completely unknown how easterly waves change from year to year in both intensity and location and how these might relate to the activity in the Atlantic (and East Pacific).

5. What is a sub-tropical cyclone? top

A subtropical cyclone is a low-pressure system existing in the tropical or subtropical latitudes (anywhere from the equator to about 50°N) that has characteristics of both tropical cyclones and mid-latitude (or extratropical) cyclones. Therefore, many of these cyclones exist in a weak to moderate horizontal temperature gradient region (like mid-latitude cyclones), but they also receive much of their energy from convective clouds (like tropical cyclones). Often, these storms have a radius of maximum winds which is farther out—on the order of 60-125 miles (100 200 km) from the center—than what is observed for purely “tropical” systems. Additionally, the maximum sustained winds for subtropical cyclones have not been observed to be stronger than about 64 kt (33 m/s).

Often these subtropical storms transform into true tropical cyclones. A recent example from November, 1994 is the Atlantic basin’s Hurricane Florence, which began as a subtropical cyclone before becoming fully tropical. Note that there has been at least one occurrence of a tropical cyclone transforming into a subtropical storm (e.g. Atlantic basin storm 8 in 1973).

Subtropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin are classified by the maximum sustained surface winds: less than 34 kt (18 m/s) is classified as a “subtropical depression”, greater than or equal to 34 kt (18 m/s) is classified as a “subtropical storm”. While these are not given names, the National Hurricane Center does issue warnings and forecasts as they would for tropical cyclones in the region.

6. How are tropical cyclones different from mid-latitude storms? top

The tropical cyclone is a low-pressure system which derives its energy primarily from evaporation from the sea in the presence of high winds and lowered surface pressure. It has associated condensation in convective clouds concentrated near its center. Mid-latitude storms (low pressure systems with associated cold fronts, warm fronts, and occluded fronts) primarily get their energy from the horizontal temperature gradients that exist in the atmosphere.

Structurally, tropical cyclones have their strongest winds near the earth’s surface (a consequence of being “warm-core” in the troposphere), while mid-latitude storms have their strongest winds near the tropopause (a consequence of being “warm-core” in the stratosphere and “cold-core” in the troposphere). “Warm-core” refers to being relatively warmer than the environment at the same pressure surface. “Pressure surfaces“ are simply another way to measure height or altitude.

7. How are tropical cyclones different from tornadoes? top

Tropical cyclones and tornadoes are both atmospheric vortices, but they have little in common. Tornadoes have diameters on the scale of 100s of meters and are produced from a single convective storm (i.e. a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus). A tropical cyclone, however, has a diameter on the scale of 100’s of kilometers and is comprised of several to dozens of convective storms. Additionally, while tornadoes require substantial vertical shear of the horizontal winds (i.e. change of wind speed and/or direction with height) to provide ideal conditions for tornado genesis, tropical cyclones require very low values (less than 10 m/s or 20 kt) of tropospheric vertical shear in order to form and grow. These vertical shear values are indicative of the horizontal temperature fields for each phenomenon: tornadoes are produced in regions of large temperature gradient, while tropical cyclones are generated in regions of near zero horizontal temperature gradient. Tornadoes are primarily an over-land phenomena—solar heating of the land surface usually contributes toward the development of the thunderstorm that spawns the vortex (though over-water tornadoes have occurred). In contrast, tropical cyclones are purely an oceanic phenomena—they die out over-land due to a loss of a moisture source. Lastly, tropical cyclones have a lifetime that is measured in days, while tornadoes typically last on the scale of minutes.

An interesting side note is that tropical cyclones at landfall often provide the conditions necessary for tornado formation. As the tropical cyclone makes landfall and begins decaying, the winds at the surface die off quicker than the winds when the pressure was 850 mb. This sets up a fairly strong vertical wind shear that allows for the development of tornadoes, especially on the tropical cyclone’s right side (with respect to the forward motion of the tropical cyclone). For the southern hemisphere, this would be a concern on the tropical cyclone’s left side due to the reverse spin of southern hemisphere storms.

8. What is the “eye”? How is it formed and maintained? top

The “eye” is a roughly circular area of comparatively light winds and fair weather found at the center of a severe tropical cyclone. Although the winds are calm at the axis of rotation, strong winds may extend well into the eye. There is little or no precipitation in the eye, and sometimes blue sky or stars can be seen. The eye is the region of lowest surface pressure and warmest temperatures aloft: the eye temperature may be more than 10°C (18°F) warmer at an altitude of 12 km (8 mi) than the surrounding environment, but only 0-2°C (0-3°F) warmer at the surface in the tropical cyclone. Eyes range in size from 8 km (5 mi) to over 200 km (120 mi) across, but most are approximately 30–60 km (20–40 mi) in diameter. The eye is surrounded by the eyewall—”the roughly circular area of deep convection which is the area of highest surface winds in the tropical cyclone. The eye is composed of air that is slowly sinking and the eyewall has a net upward flow as a result of many moderate and occasionally strong updrafts and downdrafts. The eye’s warm temperatures are due to compressional warming of the subsiding air. Most soundings taken within the eye show a low-level layer which is relatively moist, with an inversion above. This suggests that the sinking in the eye typically does not reach the ocean surface, but instead only gets to around 1–3 km of the surface.

The general mechanisms by which the eye and eyewall are formed are not fully understood, although observations have shed some light on the subject. The calm eye of the tropical cyclone shares many qualitative characteristics with other vortical systems such as tornadoes, waterspouts, dust devils and whirlpools. Given that many of these lack a change of phase of water (i.e. no clouds and diabatic heating involved), it may be that the eye feature is a fundamental component to all rotating fluids. It has been hypothesized that supergradient wind flow (i.e. swirling winds that are stronger than what the local pressure gradient can typically support) near the radius of maximum winds (RMW) causes air to be centrifuged out of the eye into the eyewall, thus accounting for the subsidence in the eye. However, Willoughby found that the swirling winds within several tropical storms and hurricanes were within 1–4% of gradient balance. It may be that the amount of supergradient flow needed to cause such centrifuging of air is only on the order of a couple percent and thus difficult to measure.

Another feature of tropical cyclones that probably plays a role in forming and maintaining the eye is the eyewall convection. Convection in tropical cyclones is organized into long, narrow rainbands which are oriented in the same direction as the horizontal wind. Because these bands seem to spiral into the center of a tropical cyclone, they are sometimes called spiral bands. Along these bands, low-level convergence is at a maximum, and therefore, upper-level divergence is most pronounced above. A direct circulation develops in which warm, moist air converges at the surface, ascends through these bands, diverges aloft, and descends on both sides of the bands. Subsidence is distributed over a wide area on the outside of the rainband but is concentrated in the small inside area. As the air subsides, adiabatic warming takes place, and the air dries. Because subsidence is concentrated on the inside of the band, the adiabatic warming is stronger inward from the band causing a sharp fall in pressure across the band since warm air is lighter than cold air. Because of the pressure drops on the inside, the tangential winds around the tropical cyclone increase due to the increases in the pressure gradient. Eventually, the band moves toward the center and encircles it and the eye and eyewall form.

Thus, the cloud-free eye may be due to a combination of dynamically forced centrifuging of mass out of the eye into the eyewall and to a forced descent caused by the moist convection of the eyewall. This topic is certainly one that can use more research to ascertain which mechanism is primary.

Some of the most intense tropical cyclones exhibit concentric eyewalls—two or more eyewall structures centered at the circulation center of the storm. Just as the inner eyewall forms, convection surrounding the eyewall can become organized into distinct rings. Eventually, the inner eye begins to feel the effects of the subsidence resulting from the outer eyewall, and the inner eyewall weakens to be replaced by the outer eyewall. The increasing pressure due to the destruction of the inner eyewall is usually more rapid than the decreasing pressure caused by the intensification of the outer eyewall, causing the cyclone to weaken for a short period of time.

9. Doesn’t the low pressure in the tropical cyclone center cause the storm surge? top

Many people assume that the partial vacuum at the center of a tropical cyclone allows the ocean to rise up in response, thus causing the destructive storm surges as the cyclone makes landfall. However, the effect caused by a tropical cyclone with a 900 mb central pressure would be only 1 m (3 ft). The total storm surge for a tropical cyclone of this intensity can be 6 to 10 m (19 to 33 ft), or more. Most (>85%) of the storm surge is caused by winds pushing the ocean surface ahead of the storm on the right side of the track (left side of the track in the Southern Hemisphere).

Since the surface pressure gradient (from the tropical cyclone center to the ambient pressure outside the storm) determines the wind strength, the central pressure indirectly indicates the height of the storm surge. Note also that individual storm surges are dependent upon the coastal topography, angle of incidence of landfall, speed of tropical cyclone motion, and wind strength.