Hurricanes are intense rotating (cyclonic) storms that form over warm tropical waters. The names for tropical cyclones vary, depending on which part of the world they are formed. In the Eastern Pacific and Atlantic oceans, these storms are called hurricanes; in the Western Pacific, they are called typhoons; and in the Indian Ocean, they are called cyclones. Other local names also exist.


Hurricanes form in a series of stages, beginning as systems of strong thunderstorms. Under certain conditions, these storm systems will become tropical depressions and then strengthen into tropical storms. Tropical storms become hurricanes when winds exceed speeds of 74 mph (120 km/h).

Destruction from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Destruction from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hurricanes remain strong only while over warm waters. Typically when hurricanes strike land and move inland, they immediately start to disintegrate. The radius of a major hurricane can be 100 mi (160 km) or greater. Major hurricanes can cause widespread destruction of property and loss of life, due primarily to storm surges—walls of seawater or the temporary rise in sea level associated with hurricanes—and to high winds along coastlines. Thunderstorms, hail, and tornados are also frequently produced by hurricanes, and major storms such as these may cause additional flooding and destruction hundreds of miles inland from the point of initial landfall.

Hurricane structure and movement

Overview of three hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean - Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Overview of three hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean - Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Atlantic hurricanes usually move from east to west near the tropics, but when they migrate toward either the North or South Pole, moving into the mid-latitudes—the areas between the tropics and the polar regions—they can get caught up in the general west to east wind flows.

Hurricane strength

Hurricanes are currently measured on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, which assigns hurricanes to categories—from Category 1 to Category 5—based upon their wind speed. A Category 1 storm has winds between 74 and 95 mph (120 and 153 km/h). Hurricanes in this category generally have a low storm surge and cause minimal damage to building structures. At the other extreme, a Category 5 hurricane has top sustained winds greater than 155 mph (250 km/h) and often comes ashore with a high storm surge with enormous destructive power. Although wind speed is an important indicator of strength, the storm surge is often the most damaging part of a hurricane.

Recent major hurricanes

With specific regard to hurricanes impacting the United States, the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons produced 4 of the 10 most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record. Hurricane Ivan slammed the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2004. In 2005, major hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma were among the most intense hurricanes recorded. As they crossed the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, all four of these storms reached Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.


Serious damage in the buildings at the Seagate neighborhood due to impact from Hurricane Sandy in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., on Thursday, November 01, 2012.

Serious damage in the buildings at the Seagate neighborhood due to impact from Hurricane Sandy in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., on Thursday, November 01, 2012.

On October 24, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Kingston, Jamaica. Her winds were close to 80 mph, and her path was far-reaching. There has been much speculation as to the correlation between global warming and Sandy's power. Scientists state that warmer temperatures increase the atmosphere's ability to retain water and produce greater storms. Also, the jet stream pattern that typically keeps Atlantic Coast storms from reaching landfall was disrupted due to a high pressure system over Greenland. Some believe this high pressure ridge was the result of global warming.

On October 31, the storm dissipated. The worldwide damage was colossal, with 253 confirmed fatalities. Twenty-four of the fifty United States were affected by Sandy, and over 8.5 million households lost power.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a staunch Republican, worked closely with President Obama to assess his state's damage. It was less than a month before the 2012 presidential election, yet Christie crossed party lines to publicly praise Obama for his rapid response to this natural disaster.

Obama granted immediate financial assistance to storm victims in certain devastated geographical areas, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) accepted additional applications for financial aid. FEMA's assistance included home repairs and funding for temporary housing. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) also offered low-interest disaster loans for smalls businesses affected by the storm.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike killed more than 600 people and caused massive flooding and homelessness in the Caribbean before crossing the Gulf to strike Galveston Island off the Texas coast near Houston. Although it struck the United States as a Category 2 storm, Ike was such a large storm—with a high storm surge more characteristic of a Category 4 or Category 5 storm—that it caused tremendous flooding and damage. Hurricane Ike became the third costliest hurricane to strike the United States behind Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew (1992).

Global warming and hurricanes

Climate scientists and climate models vary in their predictions about the impact of global warming on hurricanes. Studies released late in 2009 suggested that global warming would result in fewer, but more intense, hurricanes. Although 2004 and 2005 produced a number of highly destructive hurricanes, there were also four years during the same decade (2000 to 2009) when no hurricane made landfall in the United States.

Top Five Most Expensive Hurricanes, 2017

Top Five Most Expensive Hurricanes, 2017
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Atlantic hurricane formation is also strongly correlated to a number of climate and weather factors that influence hurricane formation and strength. For example, El Nińo events are historically associated with decreased hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.