Hurricanes: Types, Formation, Causes & Effects

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  • 0:07 What Is a Hurricane?
  • 1:49 How a Hurricane Forms
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Hurricanes are dangerous storms that affect millions of people each year. But what are hurricanes and how do they form? In this video lesson you'll learn about where and how hurricanes develop as well as the types of hurricanes that are possible.

What Is a Hurricane?

Even if you don't live in an area where hurricanes hit, you probably know what this image is. Hurricanes have caused a lot of devastation and destruction. You can likely name some recent hurricanes in the U.S. that did major damage and killed many people: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 are just a few.

Hurricanes don't develop out of thin air, though; they begin as small storms that grow into larger, more dangerous ones. In its infancy, a hurricane starts as a tropical depression, which is a tropical spinning storm with wind speeds less than 39 mph. As it grows into adolescence, the tropical depression develops into a tropical storm, which is a tropical spinning storm with wind speeds between 40 and 73 mph. If it develops into a full adult storm, it becomes a hurricane, which is a tropical spinning storm with wind speeds above 74 mph.

After becoming a hurricane, the storm is further categorized as a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, increasing with danger and damage as the number increases. A category 1 storm is the weakest hurricane, with wind speeds of 74 - 95 mph. On the opposite end, a category 5 hurricane is a very strong storm. Category 5 hurricanes are very dangerous and do extensive damage. These storms have wind speeds of 155 mph and more. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was a category 5 hurricane. It's important to remember that all hurricanes, even category 1 hurricanes, can be dangerous and damaging.

How a Hurricane Forms

Hurricanes follow the path of least resistance, which is why they travel west across the Atlantic and also why hurricanes rarely hit the West Coast of the United States. The tropical winds blowing across the Atlantic blow from east to west, originating in Africa and then moving toward the Caribbean, Mexico and Southeast U.S.

There's also a reason why Oklahoma doesn't get hit by hurricanes but Florida does. Hurricanes only develop over oceans and tend to dissipate once they hit land.

Over the tropical ocean regions, warm, moist air rises straight upward, which creates thunderstorms. The water from the air cools and condenses, eventually falling back to land as heavy rain. However, if at some point on its way up the wind gets diverted horizontally, it begins to spiral. Once it gets spinning fast enough, we get that baby hurricane, or tropical depression.

As water from the ocean condenses in the air it releases energy as heat. This is the very energy that will intensify and drive that baby storm into a tropical storm or full-on hurricane. The condensation is also what produces all the rain that comes with a hurricane, and the heat released helps the storm itself rise in the air. As it rises, it sucks up surface air, which creates a low-pressure area in the center, also known as the 'eye' of the hurricane. This is why if you're under the eye of the storm, the weather is eerily calm compared to the strong winds and heavy rain you would experience under other areas of the storm.

A hurricane is like a giant, self-sustaining heat engine - it keeps itself going unless the process is stopped. Condensation of the ocean water releases heat, which draws moist air from the ocean up into the eye of the storm. The moist air cools, which means there is more condensation, which leads to more heat being generated. This brings additional moist air up from the ocean, which cools and condenses. And you can see how this could continue on indefinitely!

But we know that hurricanes don't continue on forever; they are eventually stopped. This happens one of two ways: either strong winds disrupt the flow of the storm while it's over the ocean or the storm moves over land.

Once it moves over land, the hurricane runs out of fuel because it runs out of water to perpetuate the cycle. The ocean is like a food source for a hurricane - it provides it with energy to grow big and strong. Once over land, though, the food source runs out and the storm is deprived of the energy it needs to keep going, essentially starving to death.

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