Each year, as the summer comes to a close, hurricanes begin to appear. Hurricanes are huge tropical storms that can sometimes be as large as 600 miles across.

Hurricanes are defined by their extremely strong winds that can blow from 75 to 200 miles per hour. Unlike tornadoes, which usually last just a few minutes or less, hurricanes can last longer than a week.

They usually travel slowly at speeds of only 10 to 20 miles per hour as they cross the oceans. These storms usually occur in the southern Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico or the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Hurricanes occur in many parts of the world, but they’re not always called “hurricanes.” For those of you who like words, you may be interested to know that hurricanes that form in the western Pacific Ocean are called “typhoons.”

In the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and Australia, these storms are called “cyclones.” They’re all the same type of storm, though.

Hurricanes only form over very warm ocean water (80° F or warmer). As their winds blow in the same direction at the same speed, hurricanes gather heat and energy from warm ocean waters. As warm seawater evaporates, it feeds the hurricane’s growing winds.

Hurricane winds rotate in a counter-clockwise direction around a calm center, known as the “eye” of the hurricane. Even though the winds of a hurricane may be raging at its farthest reaches, the “eye” has only light winds and fair weather.

At sea, hurricanes present a real danger to boats. Their most destructive effects occur, however, when they reach land. Heavy rain, strong winds and huge waves have been known to cause catastrophic damage to buildings, trees and cars.

The huge waves that hurricanes push toward land are called a “storm surge.” Storm surges are extremely dangerous and often cause major flooding in coastal regions.

Even though hurricanes have existed for thousands of years, scientists have only studied them for about the last 100 years. Because of their massive size, only modern technology has allowed scientists to get a grasp on how hurricanes form and how they move.

Meteorologists classify hurricanes based on their wind speeds and potential for damage:

  • Category 1: 74 to 95 mph winds
  • Category 2: 96 to 110 mph winds
  • Category 3: 111 to 130 mph winds
  • Category 4: 131 to 155 mph winds
  • Category 5: 155+ mph winds

Recent hurricanes that have caused major damage in the United States include Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Katrina. Other past hurricanes have had names like Opal, Andrew and Fran. How do they get these names?

Hurricanes are given names so that meteorologists can identify them and track them across the oceans. Since there are sometimes multiple hurricanes at a particular time, naming them helps to avoid confusion.

Since 1979, the World Meteorological Organization has used six lists of names — both male and female — in rotation. Each list contains a name for each letter of the alphabet, except for Q, U and Z. The same lists are reused every six years.

Every once in a while, a hurricane will cause so much damage that its name goes down in the history books. Hurricane Katrina is a recent example of such a destructive storm. When a storm is particularly bad, its name is retired, and a new name is added to the list.

Although hurricanes can form at any time, the hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean is usually June 1 to November 30, with most hurricanes occurring in the fall months. The eastern Pacific Ocean hurricane season runs from about May 15 to November 30.


10 Join the Discussion

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  1. HI Wonderopolis! Wow what a busy summer I had.

    I just happened to check today’s wonder and was astonished! Last year in 5th grade I did an enormous project on hurricanes. I really love the similarities in each of our hurricane stories! What I love is hearing how hurricanes heal, start, and work. See you later!

    • Hi, Torey! We’re so glad you commented today, and that you let us know you learned something new from today’s Wonder of the Day®! We hope you had an AWESOME summer and that you have a GREAT school year this year! Thanks for being an AMAZING Wonder Friend! :-)

  2. I am thinking hurricanes will be discussed today in my K room even in Ohio and I’m so glad you have this article about how they get their name. It will help my little ones scared of storms to think about a storm without thinking about the devastation it can cause or the actions a storm will take.

    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Mandy! We sure hope that you and your Kindergarten Wonder Students are having a good time learning about the naming of hurricanes. We are thinking of all our Wonder Friends who may be affected by Hurricane Sandy– we are glad to hear that they are prepared for the storm. Thanks for sharing your comment, we are so glad you and your students will be WONDERing with us! :)

  3. I feel so bad for the people who lost their lives during hurricanes!!!!!!! My team name is the Hurricanes and we are awesome in basketball!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! =) =) =) =)

    • Hey there, Wonder Friend Basketball Lover! We are glad you’ve been thinking about those affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters. Perhaps you can learn about what you can do to help those in need.

      Thanks for telling us all about your awesome basketball team, too! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How do hurricanes get their names?
  • What is the “eye” of a hurricane?
  • When is hurricane season in the United States?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Has your name ever been used for a hurricane? Check the following lists to find out!

Sometimes when a hurricane is extremely big and does a lot of damage, scientists decide to retire its name so that it’s not used again. This reduces confusion in the future. Check out a list of retired storm names:

Want to learn more about the exact conditions that create hurricanes? Play the interactive Create-A-Cane! game.

Change wind speed, latitude and moisture levels to create tropical storms and hurricanes. You can also track tropical storms online using the Tropical Cyclone Tracker.


Still Wondering

Examine the role of technology in identifying and tracking hurricanes with Science NetLinks’ Hurricanes 2: Tracking Hurricanes lesson.


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