The Differences Between Hurricanes & Typhoons

By S.R. Haines
Fallen trees on the sidewalk due to high winds from a typhoon in Taiwan.
Ashley Pon/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Only geographic location distinguishes hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Each is defined as a tropical storm that produces sustained wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour, or 64 knots, according to the NOAA National Hurricane Center. These powerful, sometimes deadly storms are called hurricanes in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific regions, typhoons in the Northwest Pacific and cyclones in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Tropical Storm Formations

A combination of warm tropical oceans, moisture and light winds can combine to create the high winds, huge waves and torrential rains that describe these storms. While “hurricane season” in the Atlantic is considered a period between June and the end of November, these storms can happen any time. Sometimes meteorologists call a storm that has not yet reached 74 mph a “tropical cyclone.” In the Atlantic, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is used to rate hurricanes by wind speed. A storm reaching wind speeds of 74 mph is a Category 1 hurricane. The most powerful rating is Category 5 for hurricanes with sustained wind speeds reaching 157 mph or higher. Storms that have led to the highest death tolls are the ones labeled cyclones that reach densely populated countries in Asia.

History's Costly Hurricanes

Among storms called hurricanes, the deadliest hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, according to the National Hurricane Center. Storm tides as high as 15 feet flooded the entire island city, killing an estimated 8,000 people. Other estimated death tolls ranged from 6,000 to 12,000 lives lost, according to NOAA archives. The costliest hurricane in U.S. history was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm killed an estimated 1,200 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida and caused an estimated $75 billion in damages. The word "hurricane" stems from Hurrican, the name of a Caribbean god of evil, reports National Geographic magazine.

Violent Pacific Typhoons

The deadliest storm called a typhoon was the Haiphong Typhoon that hit Vietnam in 1881, according to the London newspaper The Telegraph. (Ref. 6) Floodwaters from the storm killed as many as 300,000 people in the city of Haiphong. Typhoon Nina in 1975 led to an estimated 100,000 deaths in Henan Province in China. Several thousand deaths were caused by the collapse of 62 dams during the storm. In more recent times, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, reports that Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes when the storm hit the Philippines in November 2013.

Cyclone Death Tolls

The Bhola Cyclone killed more 300,000 people when the deadly storm hit the coast of Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal in 1970, according to The Weather Channel. The victims were caught in deadly floodwaters caused by a storm surge that reached as high as 30 feet in what was then called East Pakistan. Some death toll estimates reached as high as 500,000. Ten cyclones since 1876 have each caused at least 5,000 deaths in Bangladesh. Cyclone Gorky killed nearly 140,000 people in 1991. In Myanmar, which also is known as Burma, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000 people in 2008, according to The Weather Network.

About the Author

S.R. Haines is a veteran writer whose work has been published by newspapers, magazines, international news wire services and nonprofit publications on topics ranging from breaking news and politics to travel, parenting, education, business and technology. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.