Cyclone, Typhoon, Hurricane…Are They All The Same?

Are hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons distinct meteorological phenomena, or just different names for the same horrible type of storm?

Let’s start with cyclone, since it has the clearest and most precise definition of the three. A cyclone is “a large-scale, atmospheric wind-and-pressure system characterized by low pressure at its center and by circular wind motion.” And cyclones spin “counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Since cyclones are active in so many parts of the world, maybe it’s inevitable that we have additional words to describe them. Sometimes we use an adjective to help describe where it originates, like in the case of a tropical cyclone. We also have regional words for these spinning water storms. In Australia, it’s called a willy-willy. In the US, it’s a hurricane, and in the Southern Pacific, a typhoon. So, the only true difference between a hurricane, a cyclone, and a typhoon is where in the world the storm is!

The etymologies of hurricane and typhoon are truly storm-worthy, both stemming from stories of mythical monsters.

Hurricane travels a convoluted road through the Spanish furacão, back to the Mayan god Huracan, a deity of storms and fire. The word history of typhoon is a little bit more complex: two separate but similar-sounding words, the Greek typhon and the Chinese taaîfung, were gradually squished together to form the current typhoon. Typhon was a semi-divine monster in Greek mythology that was the personification of storms, and the father of all monsters, including the sphinx (like the Egyptian statue), Cerberus (the three-headed dog), and the Nemean lion (a super lion that Hercules had to kill).

Whatever you call it, they’re monstrous storms.

What’s the difference between a category 1 hurricane and a category 4? Read about what hurricane category numbers mean.