Let’s learn about hurricanes

These spinning storms form over the Atlantic or Eastern Pacific oceans

a line of hurricanes spinning across the Atlantic in 2017

Each white swirl in this image is a hurricane that formed in the Atlantic in 2017 and then headed toward the night lights of North America (upper left).

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens and Jesse Allen, using VIIRS day-night band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and Terra MODIS data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE)

Summer in North America means the arrival of warm weather, family vacations, ice cream and hurricane season. Every year, these huge storms form over the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern Pacific Ocean. Many fade out at sea. A few head for the coasts of North or South America.

Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are all tropical cyclones. What a storm is called depends on where it forms. If it forms in the Indian Ocean, it’s a cyclone. If it’s in the Western Pacific, it’s a typhoon. If the storm is in the Atlantic Ocean or the Eastern Pacific, it’s a hurricane.

These are all rotating storms with heavy rain that form over warm ocean water. As the climate changes, oceans are getting warmer. That warmer water can create bigger storms that cause more damage.

The strength of a tropical cyclone is defined by its wind speeds. A storm doesn’t qualify as a tropical cyclone unless it has a sustained wind speed of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are then split up into five categories based on wind speed. Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes are considered “major” storms. If such storms make landfall, they can be devastating. (Learn how to prepare for a hurricane at ready.gov.)

Earth isn’t the only planet where powerful rotating winds can occur. And in space, the wind can get much, much faster. A hurricane around the center of a galaxy called J0230 has winds that howl at one-fifth of the speed of light.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Climate change intensified Hurricane Florence, study finds: The study concluded that the storm’s size and fury would have been much smaller without global warming (9/14/2018) Readability: 7.9

Scientists at last link some extreme weather to human activities: Researchers ruled out 2016’s deadly heat and ocean-warming events as simply being due to chance (1/17/2018) Readability: 8.5

Hurricane at this galaxy’s center is wicked fast: Winds circling one black hole whip by at almost one-fifth the speed of light (4/24/2016) Readability: 6.6

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Drag the hurricane in this interactive from the University of Wisconsin Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences to see how ocean temperature affects storm size and strength.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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