Stormy weather

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A reader named Susan, perhaps anticipating the anniversary of Katrina, wrote us wanting to know:

Why are they called hurricanes over here and typhoons in China? Can a typhoon happen here? I know a "super typhoon" hit Guam a few years back; what made it super?

1. Hurricanes vs typhoons -- what's the difference? Location, location, location. Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are all basically the same thing, according to NOAA, but they're called various terms based on where they strike. Tropical cyclones with winds slower than 39 mph are called "tropical depressions;" if the winds speed up but don't exceed 74 mph, the depressions get upgraded to "tropical storms" and are given names. If winds go over 74 mph, then the storm becomes:

  • a "hurricane" in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E,
  • a "typhoon" in the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline,
  • a "severe tropical cyclone" in the Southwest Pacific Ocean west of 160E or Southeast Indian Ocean east of 90E,
  • a "severe cyclonic storm" in the North Indian Ocean,
  • or a "tropical cyclone" in the Southwest Indian Ocean.

080502006j.jpgA tropical storm can do plenty of damage without officially being granted typhoon status -- Prapiroon, which made landfall as a typhoon in China a few days ago, quickly weakened to a tropical storm but still killed at least 38 people and wrecked many, many things, including this power tower.

2. Could a typhoon happen here? Not unless you're writing from the Northwest Pacific Ocean. (Which you could be! Hey, we have readers in Singapore.)

3. What's a super typhoon? A "super-typhoon" is what the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center calls a typhoon with winds that reach at least 150 mph and stay that fast for a minute or longer. The equivalent in hurricane terms is called a Saffir-Simpson category 4 or category 5 hurricane; in Australia, you'd hear it called a category 5 severe tropical cyclone. So, obviously, a super typhoon is a typhoon that's really, really bad.

If you want more details, the Discovery Channel is airing a special on super typhoons at the end of the month. And if you want to know what's the difference between lots of other similar phenomena (blimp vs. zeppelin, frog vs. toad, IZOD vs. Lacoste) check out our new book, cleverly titled What's the Difference?.

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August 8, 2006 - 6:30am
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