What Is the Difference Between a Tornado and a Hurricane?

Difference Between a Tornado and a Hurricane

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Cyclones. Typhoons. There are so many words associated with dangerous storms that spin around, it can be confusing to keep them all straight.

One of the biggest questions involves what is the difference between a tornado and a hurricane and if they are the same or similar.

The only similarity is that they are both rotating clouds of potential destruction, and it’s the ingredients required for each that make them different. 

 TornadoHurricane
Max Speed318 mph +116 mph
Average Event Cost$2.5 Million$21.5 Billion
Day or Night?Varies, generally 4 pm – 9 pmAnytime
Average SizeNo more than 1.5 miles wide300 miles wide
Season Spring (varies by region)June 1 – November 30
FormationOver LandOver Tropical Seawater
Life SpanAverage of 5 minutes, up to 200+ milesUp to a month

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Hurricane vs Tornado: Formation Zone

Long before a hurricane forms, it starts as a tropical disturbance near the equator in a tropical region. At this point, you might see them labeled something like Invest 90L.

This means there is an investigation into the potential for a tropical storm or hurricane development. Warm waters feed the tropical system until it develops into either a named tropical storm or hurricane. 

Tornadoes form over land. The ingredients needed for a tornado are different than a hurricane. Tornadoes need warm, moist air to collide with a cold air system to fire up thunderstorms. The intensity of those storms can then spawn tornadoes. 

Note: A waterspout isn’t a hurricane and isn’t always necessarily a tornado, though it can be. Two types of waterspouts are fair weather and tornadic.

  • Fair Weather: Breaking the tornadic formation from top to bottom, fair weather waterspouts build from the water up. These are short-lived and not usually dangerous.
  • Tornadic: If a tornado moves over water, it becomes a waterspout. If a tornado forms offshore, it’s called a waterspout. Once it reaches land, it’s a tornado and appropriate warnings will be issued. 

Hurricane vs Tornado: Size

This is a time when size really does matter. The most destructive tornadoes on record have a base span of 1.5 miles. The average hurricane is 300 miles wide, according to the National Weather Service. 

Even 2005’s Hurricane Wilma holds the record for the smallest eye of a hurricane which was 2 miles wide. Hurricanes are just always going to be bigger than tornadoes.

Hurricane vs Tornado: Wind Strength

Tornadoes win this battle by a long shot. Looking at the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which is how hurricanes are measured, the strongest hurricane is going to have wind speeds at or near 160 mph. 

Now let’s look at the Enhanced Fujita Scale. That 160 mph wind is estimated to only be at the EF-2 or EF-3 level. Tornadoes can get above 318 mph. 

Hurricane vs Tornado: Life Span

This is an excellent topic to put the previous wind speed into perspective. Tornadoes, on average, don’t last as long. The average is five minutes. Tornadoes can last just a second, or they carve a path hundreds of miles long. They can move slowly across land or up to 60 mph through states.

STORM FACT: The longest tornado path happened in 1925, spanning three states ( Missouri, Illinois, Indiana) and 219 miles.  

National Weather Service 

Anyone who’s been through a hurricane can tell you that the waiting is the WORST. You see the system form in the tropics, waiting to see where it develops, if it hits Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Bahamas and loses steam, then if it builds back up again.

Spaghetti-Plot

Then you watch Spaghetti Models to see if the storm is coming your way. Then it hits land and can last for days or weeks at a time as it downgrades over land. Meanwhile, you have to keep an eye on the rest of the tropics to see if a storm is forming behind it. 

STORM FACT: Hurricane Dorian stalled over the Bahamas for 52 straight hours as one of the strongest categories possible. 

National Weather Service 

Tornadic thunderstorms just develop faster than a hurricane. You have less time to prepare for a tornado coming at you than if a hurricane is, but you also don’t have to worry as long during a tornadic event as you do during a tropical system. 

Hurricane vs Tornado: Seasons

Hurricanes and tornadoes have different “seasons.” The season is in quotes because tornadoes can actually happen any time of year, there are just times of the year they are more likely.

  • Atlantic Hurricane Season: June 1 – November 30, with mid-August through mid-October being the most active. Ocean water must be at least 79°(F)/26°(C) for a tropical system to develop.
  • Tornado Season: Conditions are most likely for tornadoes in spring and summer in certain locations.
    • Gulf Coast: March through May
    • Southern Plains: May through early June
    • Upper Midwest: June and/or July

Hurricane vs Tornado: Time of Day

There is no time of day a hurricane is more likely or less likely to hit. A hurricane is motivated to move forward by the winds pushing it along.

Those winds determine how fast or slow it moves. It isn’t trying to arrive by dinnertime or waiting until the sun comes up. It’s at the mercy of the winds. 

Tornadoes can happen any time of day but are more likely to happen between 4 pm and 9 pm, according to the experts at the National Weather Service.

This is because that time of day is most likely to have the necessary collision of daytime heat rising and cooling night air, which fuels tornado-producing storms. 

Hurricane vs Tornado: Damage

Hurricanes cost nearly $21.5 billion per event. Since 1980, hurricanes have been responsible for a cost of $949.5 billion.  

Meanwhile, the costliest tornado outbreak on record cost $2.8 billion. The average cost of a tornado is $2.5 million. 

Hurricanes can just cover a larger stretch of land, with high sustained winds, pushing seawater into communities (aka “storm surge”) and continue destruction while being downgraded through hurricane categories and into tropical storm and depression versions. 

Hurricane vs Tornado: Death Toll

In an average year, tornadoes claim the lives of 80 people leaving 1500 hurt. Since 2000, hurricanes have taken anywhere from zero lives to up to more than 1,500 in a year. Read more about the destruction recently seen in Alabama and Illinois.

Both weather disasters are unpredictable in how fierce they will be, how many happen, and how intense the ones that do happen will be. 

Can a hurricane form in a tornado?

A hurricane cannot form from a tornado. A hurricane is made up of several big thunderstorms over warm water. A tornado spawns from a single thunderstorm event fueled by updrafts and air temperatures. 

Can a tornado form in a hurricane?

Since a hurricane is made up of several thunderstorms bunched together in a rotating fashion, they can spawn tornadoes over land or sea.

Can planes fly into a hurricane or tornado?

Hurricane Hunters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regularly fly into hurricanes, through the winds, and into the eye of the storm. This is not possible during a tornado. Why? Good question! Here’s the NOAA explanation: 

“Planes are generally not destroyed by strong winds while in flight. Airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the U.S. during the winter. It’s the shear, or sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds, that can destroy an aircraft, or cause its loss of control. That’s why NOAA’s Hurricane Hunter aircraft don’t fly through tornadoes.”

– NOAA Hurricane Hunters

What is a Cyclone?

A cyclone itself is a rotating storm system. It is also another world for tornados. As Dorothy announced in the Wizard of Oz, “She must be up inside the cyclone!” 

When it’s a tropical cyclone, then it can turn into a hurricane. A tropical cyclone is only called a hurricane in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the International Dateline, or in the South Pacific. 

What is a Typhoon?

A typhoon is another word for a tropical cyclone or hurricane. It is used to describe tropical cyclones that form in the Pacific Northwest Ocean west of the International Dateline.

More FAQs about Tornadoes and Hurricanes

What are 3 differences between tornadoes and hurricanes?

Tornadoes and hurricanes differ in their width, duration, and wind speeds. While tornadoes are typically less than a mile wide, hurricanes can span several hundred miles. Tornadoes typically last for a maximum of one hour, whereas hurricanes can persist for up to three weeks. Additionally, hurricanes are categorized based on their intensity, with wind speeds usually below 180 mph.

Is a hurricane just a big tornado?

A hurricane is not just a big tornado. There are several key differences between the two. Firstly, a hurricane’s horizontal scale is approximately a thousand times larger than that of a tornado. Moreover, hurricanes and tornadoes form under distinct circumstances and have varying effects on the atmosphere.

What kills more hurricanes or tornadoes?

Tornadoes cause more deaths on average, with an annual average of 56 fatalities, while hurricanes result in an average of 47 deaths per year.

What is the biggest tornado in history?

The biggest tornado in history is the Tri-State tornado, which occurred on March 18, 1925, and affected areas in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. This tornado is considered an F5 on the Fujita Scale, although tornadoes were not ranked on any scale at that time.

Do tornadoes form over water?

Tornadoes can form over water, and they are known as tornadic waterspouts. These are essentially tornadoes that either develop over water or transition from land to water. Tornadic waterspouts share similar traits with tornadoes that occur on land.

Has anyone been picked up by a tornado?

A man was indeed picked up by a tornado, thrown 1,307 feet, and miraculously survived. Allow me to provide you with the details. In Missouri, a 19-year-old named Matt Suter had an unforgettable experience when he found himself swept up inside a tornado.

How long can a tornado last?

Tornadoes can last for varying durations depending on their intensity. Strong tornadoes, which can have winds of up to 200 mph, typically persist for at least twenty minutes or more. On the other hand, violent tornadoes, with wind speeds ranging from 200 to 300 mph, can endure for over an hour. It is important to note that these violent tornadoes are infrequent phenomena.

What are 3 causes of a tornado?

Tornadoes are caused by severe thunderstorms forming in warm, moist, unstable air along and ahead of cold fronts. These thunderstorms can also produce damaging winds and large hail. Major outbreaks of tornadoes can occur when intense springtime storm systems create large, persistent areas that are conducive to tornado development.

What is the speed of a tornado?

The speed of a tornado can vary, ranging from almost stationary to over 60 mph. On average, a tornado typically moves at a speed of approximately 10–20 miles per hour.

What weather causes a tornado to begin to spin?

The weather that causes a tornado to begin to spin is when a storm is powerful enough to sweep up more warm air into the storm cloud. Simultaneously, falling cool air generates a wall cloud, a small cloud formation. Within the wall cloud, a funnel cloud develops and stretches towards the ground. This, in turn, initiates the rotation of air on the ground and leads to the destructive force of the tornado tearing up the earth.

What is a cyclone vs hurricane?

A cyclone and a hurricane are classified differently based on their maximum sustained winds. Once the winds reach 74 miles per hour or higher, the storm is categorized as a hurricane, typhoon, or tropical cyclone, depending on its origin. In the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, the term hurricane is specifically used.

What wind speed is a hurricane?

The wind speed that classifies a hurricane varies depending on the category. A Category 1 hurricane is characterized by winds ranging from 74 to 95 mph, which are strong enough to cause some damage and power outages. Moving up to Category 2, the wind speeds increase to between 96 and 110 mph, resulting in extensive damage. Finally, a Category 3 hurricane, considered a major hurricane, is defined by winds of 111 to 129 mph, which can cause devastating damage.

What causes a hurricane?

A hurricane is caused by the combination of warm ocean waters and thunderstorms, which provide the necessary energy for these intense storms. Typically originating as a tropical wave, a low pressure area that travels through the moisture-rich tropics, hurricanes form over the ocean and can lead to increased rainfall and thunderstorm activity.

Is A tornado stronger than a hurricane?

The strength of a tornado compared to a hurricane can be assessed by considering the damage caused individually and over a season, as well as the affected areas. While the winds of the strongest tornadoes surpass those of the strongest hurricanes, hurricanes generally result in greater overall damage and impact larger regions. On average, tornadoes cause approximately one-tenth of the economic damage per year compared to hurricanes.

Has a tornado ever hit Miami?

A tornado has hit Miami in the past, specifically on April 5, 1925, when the 1925 Miami tornado struck Dade County, Florida. This tornado is considered the deadliest and most intense tornado to affect the county and the Miami area.

What was the worst hurricane in history?

The worst hurricane in history, according to NOAA, was the Galveston Hurricane (August 1900). This hurricane holds the tragic record of being the deadliest weather disaster in U.S. history. Originating in the Atlantic, the storm system gained intensity and velocity as it made its way towards the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, it made landfall in Texas, specifically south of Galveston.

Who has the most tornadoes in the US?

The state with the most tornadoes in the US is Texas, which experiences an average of 120 tornadoes per year. Mississippi follows closely with an average of 102 tornadoes annually. Kansas and Alabama both tie for the third-highest average, recording 87 tornadoes each year.

Does a hurricane have a funnel?

A hurricane is a tropical storm that possesses a funnel-shaped structure, although it is considerably larger than a tornado. Within the hurricane, there exists a tranquil region known as the “eye.” The occurrence of high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, and storm surges when hurricanes approach or pass over land leads to extensive destruction across vast regions.

Can a tornado be in a hurricane?

A tornado can occur within a hurricane. These tornadoes are typically found in thunderstorms located in rain bands far from the hurricane’s center, but they can also form near the eyewall.

What happens if a tornado hits water?

If a tornado hits water, it can result in the formation of tornadic waterspouts. These are tornadoes that occur over water or transition from land to water. Tornadic waterspouts share similar characteristics with tornadoes on land, including being associated with severe thunderstorms. They are often accompanied by strong winds and rough seas, as well as the presence of large hail and frequent dangerous lightning.

Can a tornado cause a tsunami?

A tornado cannot cause a tsunami. Tsunamis can be caused by various factors such as landslides, thunderstorms, tornadoes, frontal systems, and even the collision of asteroids and comets. Any event that leads to a sudden change in atmospheric pressure can trigger a tsunami. Additionally, the speed of a tsunami is influenced by the depth of the ocean, with deeper waters resulting in faster speeds.

Is a hurricane proof house tornado proof?

A hurricane-proof house is not necessarily tornado-proof. However, to enhance a house’s resistance against tornadoes, a structural reinforced concrete roof deck is required. These specific roofs have proven to consistently withstand strong hurricane and tornado winds. Incorporating a safe room and a sturdy roof significantly increases the chances of keeping a home safe during tornado events.

What if a tornado hit an active volcano?

If a tornado were to encounter an active volcano, it would simply pass over the volcano like any regular wind. However, the chances of such an event occurring are extremely low due to the specific geological conditions required for tornado formation, which are unlikely to be present near volcanoes.

Where Can I Learn More about Hurricane vs Tornado?

National Hurricane Center

National Weather Service

FEMA/Tornado

FEMA/Hurricane

Red Cross/Tornado

Red Cross/Hurricane

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