Categories
Hurricanes Tornadoes

What Is the 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

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.

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